Decoding the Subtext: The Copper Beeches
Baring-Gould dates the Adventure of the Copper Beeches on April 5, 1889. According to Baring-Gould, this is just a few short weeks before Watson's marriage to Mary Morstan. While Watson does not mention a date, he is living in Baker Street, and does reference several cases as past events (most notably: The Blue Carbuncle, A Scandal in Bohemia, The Noble Bachelor, A Case of Identity, and The Man with the Twisted Lip). Given that Watson was married in several of these cases (The Blue Carbuncle, A Scandal in Bohemia, etc.), and that the story was published before Holmes' return (and hence before Mary's death) it is reasonable to assume that this case took place sometime during Watson's marriage to Miss Morstan. The story was first published in June, 1892.
Sherlock Holmes has truly touched bottom, or so he supposes when he is approached by an out of work governess; a Miss Violet Hunter, who seeks Holmes' opinion as to whether or not she should accept a situation. The case is not without merit, however, and Holmes soon finds that he is intrigued by the singular behaviour of Miss Violet's employers; including their condition that she cut off all her hair. Perhaps even more telling, however, is the behaviour of Miss Hunter's small charge; the child's unusually cruel disposition enough to convince Holmes that the woman Miss Violet has been unknowingly impersonating is in grave danger.
Before we begin examining the subtextual elements contained within this story, I felt it important that we take a moment and turn our attention to the dating of this story.
If we assume Baring-Gould's chronology, then The Adventure of the Copper Beeches is set in April of 1889. According to Baring-Gould, this date occurs shortly before Watson's marriage to Miss Morstan (Baring-Gould's date for Watson's marriage being May 1, 1889). Recall that Watson first met Mary in The Sign of Four, which, according to Baring-Gould, occurred in September of 1888. Finally, Baring-Gould dates The Hound of the Baskervilles in October of 1888.
In chronological order, then: Watson meets Mary in September of 1888. Watson then abandons Mary to spend several weeks on the moors of Dartmoor in October of 1888. Several months pass, and in the early spring of 1889, Watson assists Holmes with Violet Hunter's case, never once mentioning his fiancee, despite his impending nuptials.
If we assume your author's chronology (and date The Adventures of the Copper Beeches during Watson's marriage to Mary Morstan), then it is obvious that Watson is (temporarily) living apart from his wife. Throughout the story, Watson refers to Baker Street and its contents with the possessive our, implying that Watson is, indeed, living in Baker Street. If this is the case, and your author is correct, then Watson and Mary have obviously, at some point in their marriage, had cause for separation. Is it too much to suggest, then, that Holmes, and Holmes' relationship with Watson, is somehow directly tied to their rift?
We have noted in previous essays Watson's tendency to abandon Mary for Holmes, implying exactly where Watson's priorities lay, so it is reasonable to assume that Mary should one day object to Watson's constant dismissal. We can take this theory a step further and suggest that Mary's death is also an assumption. Recall that Watson does not implicitly tell us that she has passed. Might her disappearance (and Holmes' condolences) be the result of a messy divorce? We will, of course, return to this theory as this series continues. For now, let us return to the story at hand.
"To the man who loves art for its own sake," remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, "it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant to me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth that in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes celebres and sensational trials in which I have figured, but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province."
So begins The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, and we are indeed on familiar ground. How often has Holmes taken to criticizing Watson's writing and the manner in which Watson portrays Holmes' art? While this does present an interesting opening for analysis, let us turn first to the single compliment contained within Holmes' statement.
Holmes suggests that Watson has a good eye, and that he is quite adept at choosing the cases which best exhibit Holmes' singular talents. This is suggestive for two reasons. In the first, it is interesting to note that Watson does choose cases which highlight Holmes' talents, and not cases which highlight sensationalistic crime. Were Watson truly the romantic Holmes claims him to be, it is very likely that Watson, in an attempt to appeal to his readers, would focus entirely on the cause-celebres. That Watson does not gives us insight into Watson's reasons for chronicling Holmes' cases. Watson is not interested in the case, or even in appeasing his readers. He is interested in Holmes. Holmes is his subject, and Watson devotes the whole of his being to the study of this subject.
We must now examine Holmes' motives for bestowing this compliment. Throughout Canon, Holmes, on several occasions, has gone out of his way to downplay Watson's writing, and yet, frequently, Holmes is the first to admit that Watson's writing has merit. One can easily imagine that Holmes was quite flattered by Watson's writing, and that Holmes recognized that some credit for his success and fame was due to Watson's work. And yet, that alone is not reason enough for Holmes to idly mention his appreciation of Watson's talent. Could it be, then, that Holmes was attempting to flatter Watson? That Holmes, in complimenting Watson, was attempting to win Watson's affections?
This second theory is particularly interesting when one examines it in terms of chronology. If we assume Baring-Gould's chronology, then Watson's wedding is fast approaching, and Holmes' actions can be seen as a 'last ditch' attempt to convince Watson to remain in Baker Street. If we assume a later date, then Watson has returned to Baker Street, likely during a spat with his wife, and Holmes, knowing this, would have gone out of his way to ensure Watson had reason to remain.
Holmes, however, is incapable of bestowing a compliment without later pointing out Watson's shortcomings. He does exactly this, and Watson, predictably, becomes quite upset.
"It seems to me that I have done you full justice in the matter," I remarked with some coldness, for I was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend's singular character.
"No, it is not selfishness or conceit," said he, answering, as was his wont, my thoughts rather than my words.
Watson's anger is not surprising, nor is it particularly interesting. What is of interest, especially to the student of subtext, is Holmes' response. Recall that Watson tells us:
...answering, as was his wont, my thoughts rather than my words.
The implications in this statement are staggering. That Holmes is capable of reading Watson's thoughts is not surprising. What is surprising is Watson's reaction to this. He seems perfectly content, and indeed, familiar with this particular habit. This is very indicative of a close and extremely intimate relationship. Were two friends to exhibit such a feat, the result would be strange and unusual. Were two lovers to accomplish the same, the result would be commonplace.
We can now safely return to our original point of analysis; namely, Holmes' perpetual need to criticize Watson's work. We have already noted that Holmes was well aware that a share of his success and fame rested at Watson's feet. We have noted, too, that Holmes was likely quite flattered by Watson's writing. So why, then, did Holmes feel the need to downplay Watson's talent?
It is entirely possible that Holmes feared Watson's writing should one day lead Watson to unravel Holmes' methods; an act which, undoubtedly, would have rendered Holmes obsolete. As Holmes' obsolescence would have eventually led to Watson's disinterest, it is reasonable to assume that Holmes very much feared Watson mastering the art of deduction, not only for the loss of a career, but for the loss of a companion as well. It is entirely possible that Holmes' criticism was an attempt to dissuade Watson from his hobby.
It is also quite possible that Holmes' criticism stemmed from self consciousness. Watson's writing shared Holmes' talents with the world, but more than that, it shared Holmes with the world. For Holmes, a man of retiring characteristics, this must have had the effect of double-edged sword. Notoriety would have brought Holmes interesting cases (and we cannot doubt that Holmes enjoyed much of the fame and publicity) but it brought, too, a distinct lack of privacy. It is entirely likely that Holmes resented the intrusion on his (and more aptly, his and Watson's) private life.
In many of Watson's cases, Watson paints Holmes as an automaton. While the reader is well aware that this description is unworthy of Holmes, one cannot help but wonder if Holmes' reaction to Watson's writing was a further attempt to convince Watson that Holmes really was incapable of human emotion. As Holmes' criticism stemmed from Watson's inability to depict Holmes' cases in a cold and scientific manner, it is reasonable to assume that this tied directly into Watson's perception of Holmes. It is also reasonable, then, to suggest that Holmes intentionally manipulated Watson's perception, perhaps in an effort to distance himself from the growing connection Holmes felt towards Watson. We know Holmes tended to shy away from all forms of human emotion, and one can easily imagine that Holmes felt some need to protect himself from the emotional bond which tied him to Watson.
Whatever the reason, it is interesting to note that Holmes' criticism, and Watson's dejection at this criticism, are reoccurring themes in Canon, and while it would be quite interesting to examine this theme as it spreads throughout Canon, we must return now to the story, and the arrival of Miss Violet Hunter.
As he spoke the door opened and a young lady entered the room.
Violet Hunter's arrival falls on the heels of Holmes and Watson's rather heated discussion, and allows us to examine a second theory, one that is infinitely more interesting, not to mention widely discussed in many Sherlockian circles.
Baring-Gould suggests that Miss Violet Hunter was, in truth, a huntress, and that it was Sherlock Holmes who was her quarry. Baring-Gould's opinion is shared by many Sherlockians, and, as such, it is worth examining in subtextual terms.
We must, however, begin by examining the subtextual evidence which suggests that Miss Hunter had some design on Holmes.
Shortly after arriving, Miss Hunter recounts her strange first meeting with her soon to be employer, and, in telling her tale, very consciously extols her better qualities. It is interesting to note, here, that many of the talents she claims are very much in keeping with Holmes' interests.
"'My accomplishments, sir, may be less than you imagine,' said I. 'A little French, a little German, music, and drawing--'
The reader will recall that Holmes speaks fluent French and German, and that he is an avid music lover.
Miss Hunter's subtlety, however, fails to impress Holmes, and so Miss Hunter is forced to become quite brazen in her pursuit.
As you may observe, Mr. Holmes, my hair is somewhat luxuriant, and of a rather peculiar tint of chestnut. It has been considered artistic.
While I am sure the reader will agree that the above statement is hardly subtle, what is perhaps even less subtle is her claim that she is in need of Holmes' advice. This is particularly interesting when one examines her parting comment:
"That is the letter which I have just received, Mr. Holmes, and my mind is made up that I will accept it. I thought, however, that before taking the final step I should like to submit the whole matter to your consideration."
"Well, Miss Hunter, if your mind is made up, that settles the question," said Holmes, smiling.
Holmes could not have said it better; if her mind is made up, the question is settled, and there is no real reason for her to have sought out Holmes' aid.
This attempted wooing on Violet Hunter's behalf continues, Miss Hunter going so far as to tell Holmes that she is naturally observant, a talent which she no doubt hoped might impress Holmes. Even her eventual summons of do come speaks of intimacy. When one examines Miss Hunter's mannerisms and directness, one is instantly impressed by the certainty that Violet Hunter is not a woman in need of assistance, but rather, a woman with very clear designs. One cannot help but wonder, then, if she was in any way involved in creating the elaborate hoax which first brought Holmes out to Hampshire. After all, what is a woman's hair next to the love of a world famous detective?
While the above theory has been discussed before, the student of subtext may wish to take this theory a step further and examine what role, if any, Watson might have played in this most cunning plot.
Shortly before Miss Hunter arrives in Baker Street, Holmes hands Watson the letter he received that morning, requesting that Watson read it. The letter is from Violet Hunter, and while it does not present any features of interest, Watson's reaction is quite interesting. First, he asks if Holmes knows the young lady, an obvious attempt to discern whether Holmes might be at all suspicious.
Holmes ensures Watson that he does not, upon which, Watson, perhaps in his relief, attempts to persuade Holmes to take the case.
"It may turn out to be of more interest than you think. You remember that the affair of the blue carbuncle, which appeared to be a mere whim at first, developed into a serious investigation. It may be so in this case, also."
Quite a suggestive statement, one must agree, for Watson clearly wishes Holmes to take an interest in this case. There is nothing in the letter to suggest that it may be of more interest than you think, so why else, save that Watson had arranged this meeting, would Watson have felt the need to make this particular comment?
Indeed, if we need further confirmation regarding Watson's involvement, one must only examine Watson's disappointment at the closure of the case. Here, Watson tells us:
As to Miss Violet Hunter, my friend Holmes, rather to my disappointment, manifested no further interest in her when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems...
Watson clearly states that he is disappointed that Holmes failed to manifest any further interest in Miss Hunter. What possible reason could lead to this comment, save that Watson had intentionally arranged this meeting in the hopes that Holmes might have developed a romantic interest in Violet Hunter?
We assume, then, that Watson was responsible for Miss Hunter's arrival at Baker Street (the validity of the case not withstanding, for Watson could have just as easily heard the woman's curious story elsewhere --perhaps Miss Hunter, a fellow governess, is a friend of Mary Morstan's?), and that, through this meeting, Watson hoped that Holmes might develop a romantic attraction to Miss Hunter. If this is the case, then we must question Watson's motives.
If we are using Baring-Gould's chronology, then Watson is set to marry in a few short weeks. It is reasonable to assume that Watson knew his impending departure from Baker Street would have an adverse affect on Holmes; indeed, upon the announcement of Watson's engagement, Holmes' response had been to reach towards his cocaine. It is entirely probable, then, that Watson feared his marriage and his resulting departure from Baker Street might somehow result in Holmes' decline, something which Watson undoubtedly bore with a heavy, and guilt-ridden, heart.
Even if we choose to ignore Baring-Gould's chronology and set the case sometime during Watson's marriage, the theory holds, for it is quite likely that Watson, estranged from Mary, knew that Holmes was a cause of tension in his marriage. What better way to relieve this tension then to introduce Holmes to a female companion? We see here, too, the potential for Mary Watson's hand in the matter, for it is entirely probable that it was she who first set this plan in motion. In fact, Watson's conditions for returning home might have been contingent on his cooperation.
Despite Watson's efforts, Holmes' interest remains entirely professional. He compares Miss Hunter, on several occasions, to a sister, muttering that no sister of his should ever have accepted such a situation. In fact, it is entirely possible that Holmes was aware of Watson's involvement, and hoped, through subtle means, to dismiss Watson's plot without the need for confrontation.
Holmes does not, however, bear any grudge for Watson's potential involvement. Indeed, upon receiving a telegram from Miss Hunter requesting their presence in Hampshire, Holmes' first act is to request Watson's involvement.
"Will you come with me?" asked Holmes, glancing up.
This is a particularly curious statement, especially when one considers that Holmes is very likely aware of Miss Hunter's interest and, possibly, Watson's involvement. That he should want Watson by his side --as an intermediary, no doubt-- suggests that Holmes is quite desperate to avoid Miss Hunter's advances. One can easily imagine the awkwardness Holmes must have felt, knowing that his interest extended only towards the problem Miss Hunter presented, while Miss Hunter undoubtedly hoped for something more.
Watson, of course, agrees, and yet we see he has not given up hope. Indeed, with his wedding fast approaching, Watson is only too eager to see a connection form between Holmes and Miss Violent. This is quite evident, even when we remove the hypothesis of Watson's involvement; were Miss Hunter a complete stranger, it is unlikely that Watson, a self professed 'lady's man', should have missed her interest in Holmes, and, upon spotting it, Watson would have been only too eager to see Holmes happily married. Perhaps, in Watson's mind, he foresaw a future in which Holmes and he lived side by side, their wives great friends, and the two of them free to travel the world on various adventures, while their wives took solace in one another's company. Truly Watson was capable of some rather grand delusions.
Returning to more serious matters, and Holmes and Watson's journey to Hampshire, one immediately notes Watson's attempts to steer the conversation away from the logical, and onto the romantic, possibly in an attempt to woo Holmes in Violet's place.
It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man's energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.
"Are they not fresh and beautiful?" I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.
One wonders, upon reading Watson's curious outburst, whether he truly speaks of the farmsteads, or whether he alludes to Miss Hunter, hoping, one cannot doubt, to once again turn Holmes' thoughts to the woman awaiting their arrival.
This effort on Watson's behalf borders on obsessive, and while we have speculated upon Watson's reasons for wanting Holmes' interest to extend beyond the case, it is Watson's disappointment that is truly of interest. We have quoted the passage above, and yet, it is worth repeating:
As to Miss Violet Hunter, my friend Holmes, rather to my disappointment, manifested no further interest in her when once she had ceased to be the centre of one of his problems, and she is now the head of a private school at Walsall, where I believe that she has met with considerable success.
It is curious here to note that Watson is familiar with Miss Hunter's current appointment. Were she an ordinary client, with no real connection to either man, it is unlikely that Watson would have known of her whereabouts (let alone her successes). That he is familiar with her current situation implies that Watson has somehow kept in touch with Miss Hunter. Is it too far a stretch, then, to assume that Miss Hunter was an acquaintance of Mary Morstan, and that it was she who first persuaded Miss Hunter to share her strange tale with Watson? Was it also Mary Morstan who insisted that Watson arrange to introduce Miss Hunter to Holmes? Watson very likely knew that the case was trivial at best, and yet, it is quite probable that he hoped Holmes might find himself drawn to a woman with so many shared characteristics. Who else, then, but Mary Morstan, might have been in a position to point out these shared characteristics?
The presents us with a new problem, for if, as we are hypothesizing here, it was indeed Mary Morstan who perpetuated this introduction, then one must question why she was so insistent that Holmes should meet a female companion. Woman's intuition being it what it is, it is highly unlikely that Mary could have spent any amount of time in Watson's company without coming to realize the full extent of his feelings for Sherlock Holmes.
That Watson would agree to stage an introduction is unsurprising, for one can easily imagine that he did so in hopes of seeing Holmes happy and secure. Mary knew well what she was doing, for Watson's guilt and worry would ensure Watson's cooperation, and should they succeed, Mary would no longer need fear Holmes' dependency on Watson.
These are very deep waters, indeed.