Decoding the Subtext: Charles Augustus Milverton
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton in January of 1899. Watson states that he has omitted the date due to the sensitive nature of the case, telling us only that it was a cold, frosty winter's evening. CHAR is hotly contested by chroniclers, some dating the story as early as 1882, some as late as 1903. While we will examine the story's placement in chronology throughout our analysis, it is your author's opinion that it took place sometime before the hiatus. The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton was first published in March of 1904.
In The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes is hired by a young debutante to negotiate the terms of her blackmail. Holmes, hoping to spare his client scandal, and the break-up of her engagement, parleys reluctantly with a Mr. Charles Augustus Milverton, known blackmailer and, according to Holmes, the worst man in London, but is unable to agree on satisfactory terms. This leaves Holmes without recourse, and so, despite knowing the move will set him on the wrong side of the law, Holmes resolves to burgle Mr. Milverton's home, hoping in the process to retrieve his client's letters. Holmes' plan, however, goes awry when both he and Watson are interrupted by Mr. Milverton and the arrival of a veiled woman. From behind a heavy set of curtains, Holmes can only watch as this woman sends Milverton to his grave, Holmes waiting until the woman has left to indemnify the remainder of Milverton's victims by emptying the contents of his safe into the fire.
Part of the difficulty in decoding Charles Augustus Milverton is that it is quite difficult to establish a place for the story in terms of chronology. As the story's placement is essential in understanding Holmes and Watson's relationship, we must first turn our attention to carving out a likely date for the story.
Watson tells us that it is years since the incidents of which I speak took place. We know that the story was first published in March of 1904, and so already our suspicions rest with a time quite early in Holmes' career.
Not too early, however, as we can see from Holmes and Watson's interaction:
We had been out for one of our evening rambles, Holmes and I, and had returned about six o'clock on a cold, frosty winter's evening.
It is quite obvious here that Holmes and Watson are both living in Baker Street, and that they are quite close. Watson's reference to one of their evening rambles is highly suggestive, for it is quite indicative of habit.
Several of Holmes' comments also give us insight into the date. Indeed, Holmes states:
"I've had to do with fifty murderers in my career..."
And again, this is highly suggestive of an earlier date, for it is hard to imagine the cases in Holmes' career providing only fifty murderers.
Finally, in examining Holmes and Watson's relationship, we cannot help but note that it is very reminisce of their relationship at the start of Holmes' earlier career.
There is Watson's objection to Holmes' plan of burglary, a trait more commonly found in Watson of old. There is the decided sense of uncertainty between the two men, suggesting that their relationship is still quite new. There is the tentative, flirtatious air between them, which suggests that they have not yet incorporated a physical element into their relationship. Finally, there are Watson's heartfelt congratulations upon hearing of Holmes' engagement:
"You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?"
"You'll be interested to hear that I am engaged."
"My dear fellow! I congrat ----"
There are but two times in Watson and Holmes' relationship that Watson might consider congratulating Holmes on his engagement. The first would be during Watson's own marriage, and yet we have demonstrated that Watson is living in Baker Street, and so not, at present, married. The second is during the early years of their acquaintanceship, when they had not yet crossed the line between friends and lovers.
It is therefore your author's opinion that Charles Augustus Milverton took place in the winter of 1884 or 1885, sometime shortly after the events contained within The Speckled Band.
Having secured a date, we can once again turn to the story, and the subtext contained within. We return now to the start of our tale, Holmes and Watson having just returned from their ramble through London. Upon the table Holmes discovers the business card of a Charles Augustus Milverton, and here Watson tells us:
He glanced at it, and then, with an ejaculation of disgust, threw it on the floor.
It becomes quite apparent, right from the start, that Holmes is repulsed by the man he has been forced to do business with. This theme will come up several times throughout the story, and while we will touch on each in turn, it is worth mentioning that Holmes' behaviour towards C.A.M. has led a number of prominent scholars to suggest that Holmes was not unfamiliar with the blackmailer. Indeed, it is our intention to prove that Holmes knew C.A.M. quite well; and not only in his position as intermediary.
Holmes does not merely express his distaste with a thrown business card. Indeed, in answer to Watson's question, Holmes states:
"He is the king of all the blackmailers. Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton. With a smiling face and a heart of marble he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry."
Such venom in Holmes' tone; and here we cannot help but feel as though Holmes' distaste stems from a more personal encounter. Indeed, Holmes' feelings regarding the man are so apparent that Watson tells us:
I had seldom heard my friend speak with such intensity of feeling.
For a man who seldom shows such intensity of feeling, it is indeed quite curious that this outburst should come in response to London's best known blackmailer. Even Moriarty did not excite such rage.
While we cannot be certain what hold this man had (or has) over Holmes, we do know that he is seemingly unfamiliar with Watson. Indeed, Holmes is forced to introduce Watson, stating:
"Dr. Watson is my friend and partner."
There is challenge in Holmes' tone, here, and one cannot help but wonder if Holmes was daring Milverton to make some subtle suggestion. Indeed, it becomes increasingly obvious that Holmes' experience with Milverton likely related to Holmes' inverted nature.
That Holmes and Milverton have a history, we do not doubt, for Watson, during Holmes' interview with Milverton, tells us that Holmes was grey with anger and mortification. Indeed, we see that Milverton has upset Holmes greatly, for after Milverton's leaving, Watson tells us:
Holmes sat motionless by the fire, his hands buried deep in his trouser pockets, his chin sunk upon his breast, his eyes fixed upon the glowing embers. For half an hour he was silent and still.
It is some days later that Holmes announces his intentions to burgle Milverton's home. It is the only way he can hope to secure his client's letters, and it appears quite obvious that Holmes is not willing (or able) to allow Milverton victory. We will return to this in a moment, but first, let us exam Watson's curious reaction to the news:
I had a catching of the breath, and my skin went cold at the words, which were slowly uttered in a tone of concentrated resolution. As a flash of lightning in the night shows up in an instant every detail of a wide landscape, so at one glance I seemed to see every possible result of such an action -- the detection, the capture, the honoured career ending in irreparable failure and disgrace, my friend himself lying at the mercy of the odious Milverton.
It is quite obvious here that, despite the short time of their friendship, Watson is quite attached to Holmes. It was during this time that Watson's obsession slowly grew, until eventually it bloomed into genuine affection. We see this affection in Watson's worry, and know instantly that Watson will not allow Holmes to go alone.
Indeed, in this Watson is quite firm, their conversation, one must agree, quite telling.
"Well, I don't like it; but I suppose it must be," said I. "When do we start?"
"You are not coming."
"Then you are not going," said I.
While again Holmes' reluctance to bring Watson can be seen as a sign of their early acquaintanceship, we must also note Watson's unwillingness to allow Holmes to proceed unaided. Clearly, Holmes already held a place of honour in Watson's heart.
Eventually Holmes does agree, Holmes stating:
"Well, well, my dear fellow, be it so. We have shared the same room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell."
Holmes' statement that they have shared rooms for some years allows us to further pinpoint the date (eliminating, at least, 1882 and 1883), but we are far more amused by Holmes' suggestion that they might come to share a cell. Indeed, it is entirely possible that this was long one of Holmes' fantasies.
Although Watson, apparently, was the kinkier of the two:
"And a mask?"
"I can make a couple out of black silk."
Masks in hand, Holmes and Watson head out to Milverton's home, and it is there that we begin to see the tentative flirtatiousness that summarized their early relationship. Before, however, they leave, it is important to note that:
Holmes and I put on our dress-clothes, so that we might appear to be two theatre-goers homeward bound.
We cannot begin to imagine why Watson, leaving Baker Street at midnight, should accept this excuse. It is quite obvious that this, to Holmes, was a date. A shame Watson had not yet mastered Holmesian, for if he had, we can well imagine that their relationship would have shifted much earlier.
Indeed, Holmes' wooing upon their arrival at Milverton's estate only intensified, Watson telling us:
He seized my hand in the darkness and led me swiftly past banks of shrubs which brushed against our faces.
And then, later:
Still holding my hand in one of his he opened a door...
Watson, despite not knowing Holmes' true intentions, does eventually get swept away by Holmes' manner. Indeed, Watson tells us:
I touched Holmes on the arm...
Leading Holmes to up the ante, so to speak:
"I don't like it," he whispered, putting his lips to my very ear.
Sadly, there is work at hand, and so Holmes and Watson are forced to put aside their flirting. Watson, it is curious to note, does not quite absorb himself in the job, instead settling back to engage in another favourite pastime; observing Holmes.
With a glow of admiration I watched Holmes unrolling his case of instruments and choosing his tool with the calm, scientific accuracy of a surgeon who performs a delicate operation. I knew that the opening of safes was a particular hobby with him, and I understood the joy which it gave him to be confronted with this green and gold monster, the dragon which held in its maw the reputations of many fair ladies.
We must note, too, Watson's excitement here, for it speaks to the dating of this story. It is quite obvious that this is one of the first, if not the first, of Holmes and Watson's break ins. Again, this is suggestive of an earlier date. The student of subtext will also be interested to note Watson's description, for it is quite obvious that he has been rendered breathless by Holmes' talents with safe-cracking tools. Indeed, Watson goes so far as to cast Holmes into the role of knight and hero, Holmes slaying the gold-green dragon so that he might protect the virtue of many a fair lady. Again, this speaks to an early date, for Watson's hero-worship is far more prevalent in early Canon.
Watson's observation has not finished, however, and he goes on to describe quite the intimate scene:
Turning up the cuffs of his dress-coat -- he had placed his overcoat on a chair...
Watson's observation, it would appear, has turned to ogling. Holmes' undressing, too, is quite amusing, for we cannot help but note the air of trust and comfort in Holmes' manner. Surely it is no great stretch to suggest that Holmes' languid movements here were symbolic of the comfort and trust which grew in his friendship with Watson.
Sadly, Holmes' comfort and, indeed, Watson's observations, are cut short, the sound of footsteps sending the two men into hiding. They choose to hide behind a set of heavy curtains as Milverton enters the room, Holmes quite frustrated, Watson quite alarmed.
After the passage of what must have seemed like hours, Watson finally dares to part the curtain and glance out into the room. He tells us:
From the pressure of Holmes's shoulder against mine I knew that he was sharing my observations.
And we cannot help but note that, despite the danger of the situation, Holmes is unable to resist pressing himself against Watson's side.
Indeed, being so close to Watson must have been quite overwhelming for Holmes, for a moment later Watson tells us:
I felt Holmes's hand steal into mine and give me a reassuring shake, as if to say that the situation was within his powers and that he was easy in his mind.
A clear indication that Holmes' growing attraction was fast becoming a distraction. Indeed, it is quite likely that after this incidence Holmes began the careful reconstruction of his walls, an act which would see the passage of two years before their relationship once again moved towards intimacy.
Their moment is interrupted by the arrival of a veiled woman, and her visit soon turns deadly, the woman pulling out a revolver and emptying it into Milverton's body. Shocked beyond comprehension, Watson's first instinct is to run to Milverton's aid; an act which Holmes strictly forbids.
I was about to spring out, when I felt Holmes's cold, strong grasp upon my wrist. I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining grip -- that it was no affair of ours; that justice had overtaken a villain; that we had our own duties and our own objects which were not to be lost sight of.
Indeed, it is not until the woman leaves, Milverton's body growing cold on the floor, that Holmes releases Watson. While Watson's explanation is quite probable, we must also question whether Holmes had some personal reason for wanting Milverton dead.
It is interesting to note, too, that Holmes' refusal to interfere on Milverton's behalf is followed by his destruction of Milverton's papers.
With perfect coolness Holmes slipped across to the safe, filled his two arms with bundles of letters, and poured them all into the fire. Again and again he did it, until the safe was empty.
Was there something inside beyond the letters of his client? Something which Holmes dreaded coming to light?
We have alluded at length to the possibility that Holmes was being (or had been) blackmailed by Milverton, and we will delve now into this theory more completely. We have established that Holmes seems to know Milverton from outside of this case. It would appear, too, based on Milverton's familiarity with Holmes, that Milverton has had dealings with Holmes as well. We have established Holmes' intense distaste for Milverton, suggesting a personal affront. We have demonstrated Holmes' desperation at obtaining the documents and letters in Milverton's care. When examined as a series of events, several theories come to mind, which suggest that Holmes has, at some point in his past, had dealings with Milverton outside of Holmes' professional career.
We will first suggest that, at some point in the past, Holmes himself was a victim of Milverton's blackmailing. In fact, it is quite possible that this stemmed from Holmes' relationship with Victor Trevor (GLOR). Alternatively, it could have arisen from something written by Holmes which pertained, not to an individual, but to his inverted nature.
We must also consider the possibility that Holmes was presently being blackmailed. If this is the case, then we can easily understand Holmes' desperation to obtain access to Milverton's safe. Indeed, as Watson does not meet Holmes' client, it is entirely possible that she was, in fact, a fabrication.
Other scholars have suggested that it was not Holmes, but rather, someone close to him in the role of Milverton's victim. Indeed, there is even the possibility, however slim, that it was Watson who fell under Milverton's control. It should be noted that this theory strengthens only when we place the case at a later date. Had this case taken place during the time of Watson's marriage (or engagement) and had Milverton proof of Watson's illustrious affair with Holmes, we have no doubt that he would have used this information to destroy both men.
Of all the theories presented, however, it is the first (that Holmes' relationship with Milverton stemmed from a past meeting) which presents the most plausibility. It is your author's opinion, then, that Holmes' first meeting with Milverton came during his relationship with Victor Trevor. As Trevor came from a well respected family, one can easily imagine that it was Trevor who fell victim to Milverton's blackmailing. Indeed, this is likely what ended Holmes' relationship with Trevor, and caused Holmes to leave University before the competition of his studies. Holmes lingering resentment towards Milverton, and his desire to destroy Milverton's papers (on the off chance that Milverton still held incriminating documents against Holmes) fit quite nicely within this theory.
Indeed, so too does Holmes' reluctance to allow Watson to accompany him, for at this point in their relationship, we cannot doubt that Holmes would have despaired at the prospect of Watson discovering Holmes' true nature. This becomes even more apparent if we date this story in the winter of 1884/1885, for it was not until 1887/1888 that Holmes first told Watson the story of young Victor Trevor (GLOR).