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Decoding the Subtext: The Gloria Scott

Dates:

The Gloria Scott was, by all accounts, Holmes' first case. Baring-Gould dates the case in the summer/fall of 1874 (seven years prior to Holmes meeting Watson). The story is told in retrospect, Baring-Gould suggesting a date in the winter of 1887 or 1888 for the re-telling. The Gloria Scott was first published in April of 1893.

Synopsis:

In The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, Holmes spends a month with a college friend at his friend's father's estate. Here, the story of a long forgotten ship, the Gloria Scott, its convict passengers bound for Australia, and its mutinous crew first comes to light. This is the first occasion where Holmes realizes that perhaps his powers of deduction (which were once a mere hobby) might provide for an actual career.

The Subtext:

The Gloria Scott introduces a figure of Holmes' past; a man by the name of Victor Trevor, whom Holmes refers to as a close friend. It should be noted that Trevor is the only friend Holmes mentions in association with his time at University. Here we must examine Holmes' introduction to Trevor, for the entire situation (not to mention the dialogue) is very suggestive.

"You never heard me talk of Victor Trevor?" he asked. "He was the only friend I made during the two years I was at college. I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year. Bar fencing and boxing I had few athletic tastes, and then my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had no points of contact at all. Trevor was the only man I knew, and that only through the accident of his bull terrier freezing on to my ankle one morning as I went down to chapel.

"It was a prosaic way of forming a friendship, but it was effective. I was laid by the heels for ten days, but Trevor used to come in to inquire after me. At first it was only a minute's chat, but soon his visits lengthened, and before the end of the term we were close friends. He was a hearty, full-blooded fellow, full of spirits and energy, the very opposite to me in most respects, but we had some subjects in common, and it was a bond of union when I found that he was as friendless as I. Finally, he invited me down to his father's place at Donnithorpe, in Norfolk, and I accepted his hospitality for a month of the long vacation.


Understandably, male-male friendships in the Victorian era were considerably different than they are today. To begin with, it wasn't until 1905 (when Freud first put forth the idea of sexuality as a form of identity) that close male-male friendships (often referred to as romantic friendships --although, this term was often reserved for close female-female friendships) began to disappear. The concept of homosexuality existed before this time, but affection between two men was not considered a sign of latent homosexuality (as it would be today).

Still, the formation of this friendship (between Holmes and Trevor) has an unusual progression, which suggests the potential development of a romantic relationship, rather than a platonic one. To begin with, their encounters occur alone, behind closed doors, and they progress, from 'minutes' chats' to 'lengthened visits', suggesting the build up of something more intimate.

Then, there is the manner in which Holmes describes Trevor. Holmes uses words such as 'full-blooded' and 'filled with spirits and energy', implying something of a physical, rather than an emotional, exchange.

The increasing intimacy between the two men cumulate into a month long visit with Trevor's family, something that, again, suggests an extremely close bond.

The visit does not go well, but the two part on amiable, but certainly less genial terms, than before. Still, seven weeks later, Trevor requests Holmes' presence, and Holmes 'drops everything' to rush to Trevor's side.

It is interesting to note here that this is the first time Holmes mentions Trevor to Watson, implying that their friendship has not been sustained. In fact, neither Watson, nor the reader, hears of Trevor again, suggesting that the two parted ways sometime after the completion of the Gloria Scott case. This ending is far more suggestive of a break-up than the disintegration of a friendship. It occurs rather suddenly, and Holmes mentions, several times during his narrative, the discomfort he experienced in the tail end of his visit, Holmes cutting his visit short due in large part to this awkwardness.

It is telling, too, that Holmes does share this with Watson. At this point, using Baring-Gould's chronology, Holmes and Watson have been living together for some 7-8 years. In all that time, Trevor has not been mentioned (implying that Holmes no longer keeps in touch with his only college friend), except on this one occasion. Here, Holmes does not mention him in passing. In fact, Holmes shares the entire incident, as well as his previously close association with Trevor, in precise detail.

When you consider how long Watson has been requesting the details of Holmes' past, it is highly interesting that Holmes would have waited so long to share this particular case. There is no reason for the case itself to remain hidden, and yet Holmes waited, years upon years, before revealing its nature, and the characters involved.

But share it he did, and this is very suggestive of a close, intimate relationship between Holmes and Watson.

It should be pointed out that we are not suggesting that Trevor was Holmes' first lover (although it is certainly probable). This is completely unsubstantiated. But it is highly probable that their relationship marked a turning point for Holmes, as prior to his friendship with Trevor, Holmes appeared to be (from what little we know) a highly recluse individual. There is no indication that Holmes cumulated any close friendships prior to Trevor, nor is there any indication that he formed any close friendships after Trevor (until Watson, that is). He maintains several acquaintances, and professional peers, but no close friends. Again, this implies that perhaps Trevor (like Watson) was a good deal closer to Holmes (or meant something more to Holmes) than a mere friend. Whether this relationship contained a sexual element is unknown, but it certainly contained an emotional one.

Outside of Holmes' relationship with Trevor, the story itself presents several elements that could be considered homoerotic in nature. I refer of course to the tale of Trevor Sr., who, when referring to the origins of the Gloria Scott, referred to the man responsible for the mutiny in the following manner:

The man next to me, upon the aft side, was one whom I had particularly noticed when we were led down the quay. He was a young man with a clear, hairless face, a long, thin nose, and rather nutcracker jaws. He carried his head very jauntily in the air, had a swaggering style of walking, and was, above all else, remarkable for his extraordinary height. I don't think any of our heads would have come up to his shoulder, and I am sure that he could not have measured less than six and a half feet. It was strange among so many sad and weary faces to see one which was full of energy and resolution. The sight of it was to me like a fire in a snowstorm. I was glad, then, to find that he was my neighbour, and gladder still when, in the dead of the night, I heard a whisper close to my ear, and found that he had managed to cut an opening in the board which separated us.

Again, it should be noted that the Victorian language differs significantly from modern English, and yet, there is something highly suggestive in referring to someone as though they were a fire in a snowstorm. The Victorians were a very repressed people, and yet they often communicated their desires and lust through thinly veiled wording; as it would have been considered quite improper to display these emotions through action.The above paragraph is a clear example of Victorian subterfuge.

It is also interesting to note that this is one of the few cases where Holmes refers to Watson using the title, 'Doctor'. Victorian formality, being what it was, placed a lot of emphasis on a person's title. There are very few occasions of Victorians referring to one another by their given (i.e. Christian) names, and even the use of surnames were limited to close association. Under normal circumstances (even informal ones) a title was given (Dr. Watson, Mr. Holmes, etc.), and yet close friends would refer to one another by their surnames. It is notable, then, that here Holmes addresses Watson solely by his title, perhaps as a way to distance himself from the personal nature of the memory he has just shared.

 
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