Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: Lady Frances Carfax

Dates :

Baring-Gould dates The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax in July of 1902. Watson does not mention a date, but does mention that Lady Frances Carfax's disappearance occurred during the summer season, making July a reasonable month. In addition to this, Holmes references a past event which took place in 1889, and given that Watson is unmarried and living in Baker Street during the case, we can safely set the case after Holmes' return. Finally, Watson's confession of feeling old and arthritic is highly suggestive of a later date. There are, of course, several problems with Baring-Gould's year, and, while Lady Frances Carfax is one of the most challenging cases to fit within any chronology, we must suggest an earlier year. Given Holmes and Watson's interaction throughout the case, Lady Frances Carfax is far better suited to the period between 1897 and 1899. The story was first published in December of 1911.


Tied to London by a pressing case, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. Watson onto the Continent to investigate the disappearance of the Lady Frances Carfax. A lone, unwed woman, Holmes fears for her safety, and so Watson picks up her trail, tracing her first through Switzerland, and then into Germany, and finally into France, where Holmes arrives in time to drag Watson back to London. It is there that the story takes a sinister twist, for Holmes has discovered that the Lady Frances Carfax had had some dealings with a man named Holy Peter, aka Dr. Shlessinger, a man Holmes fears capable of murder. When the Lady Frances Carfax's jewels turn up in a pawn shop, Holmes is quick to spring into action, arranging to have Peter's wife followed. It is then that Holmes first learns that Peter's has ordered a coffin which can only be described as out of the ordinary. Fearing the worst, Holmes forces his way into Peter's home, only to discover a deceased elderly woman who is clearly not the Lady Frances Carfax. It'll take a long night before Holmes realizes that the key to the case lies in the dimensions of the coffin.

The Subtext:

"But why Turkish?" asked Mr. Sherlock Holmes, gazing fixedly at my boots. I was reclining in a cane-backed chair at the moment, and my protruded feet had attracted his ever-active attention.

"English," I answered in some surprise. "I got them at Latimer's, in Oxford Street."

Holmes smiled with an expression of weary patience.

"The bath!" he said; "the bath! Why the relaxing and expensive Turkish rather than the invigorating home-made article?"

So begins The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, and here, too, we begin our attempts to date this story. Before doing this, however, we first wish to draw attention to the playful banter which sets the tone for this story. Indeed, throughout Lady Frances Carfax, Holmes and Watson engage in several similar conversations, their playfulness quite apparent.

So too is Holmes' jealousy, for Holmes clearly asks why Watson sought relaxation at a bath house when he could have had the invigorating home-made article. It is quite obvious here that Holmes was not speaking of an English bathhouse, but rather, of the bathtub at Baker Street, and Holmes' willingness to help Watson unwind.

This type of behaviour is very reminiscent of the early part of their established relationship. Indeed, this case cannot have occurred long after Holmes' return, Holmes' tentativeness and uncertainty having vanished with the passing of years. There is a familiarity here which does suggest a committed relationship, and yet, Holmes' uncertainty can be seen as proof that this commitment is relatively new.

Watson allays Holmes' fears by stating that his trip to the Turkish bath was entirely medical in nature. Holmes, however, is not entirely convinced, and so, when Watson asks for an explanation regarding how Holmes knew he had attended the baths, Holmes states:

"The train of reasoning is not very obscure, Watson," said Holmes with a mischievous twinkle. "It belongs to the same elementary class of deduction which I should illustrate if I were to ask you who shared your cab in your drive this morning."

Again, we see Holmes' jealousy come to the forefront as he questions who shared Watson's cab and, again, this is an indication of an earlier date (possibly shortly before the events contained within The Devil's Foot). There is still playfulness here, however, Holmes managing to hide his doubt quite well. Indeed, Watson speaks to a mischievous twinkle in Holmes' eyes, suggesting that the bond between remains quite strong, despite this doubt. Holmes may worry on occasion, but he has the utmost confidence in Watson.

In fact, Watson, without responding directly to Holmes' fears, manages to scold Holmes for even suggesting that he might stray. To this Holmes cannot help but extend his congratulations, for clearly Holmes knows that he cannot hide his true feelings from Watson.

"I don't admit that a fresh illustration is an explanation," said I with some asperity.

"Bravo, Watson! A very dignified and logical remonstrance."

And so Holmes admits his foolishness, for he should know by now not to doubt Watson's loyalty. In this case, Watson's remonstration is well deserved.

Holmes has not, however, answered Watson's original question, and so he continues, his response, one must agree, quite amusing:

"You are in the habit of doing up your boots in a certain way. I see them on this occasion fastened with an elaborate double bow, which is not your usual method of tying them. You have, therefore, had them off."

Remarkable, is it not, that Holmes is so fully aware of Watson and his habits that he can tell when someone other than Watson has tied his laces. Unfortunately, this does not help us in our dating, for we have no doubt that Holmes has been aware of Watson's boot-tying habits for some time now. Indeed, it is quite easy to imagine that Holmes knew all of Watson's habits; the most intimate included.

Holmes' deduction leads Holmes to the assumption that Watson is in need of a break. He suggests a trip to the Continent, stating:

"You say that you have had it because you need a change. Let me suggest that you take one. How would Lausanne do, my dear Watson--first-class tickets and all expenses paid on a princely scale?"

Watson's response, naturally, is to shout:


And here we can easily imagine that Watson assumed Holmes would be travelling with him.

Sadly, this is not the case, for Holmes wishes for Watson to go on ahead and begin their investigation alone. This is not an unfamiliar sight, for on several occasions Holmes has sent Watson in his stead. While this can be seen a sign of acute trust, the dating of this adventure negates what would otherwise be a remarkable gesture on Holmes' behalf. Indeed, Watson does not at all seem touched by Holmes' trust, instead coming across as rather disappointed; Watson likely having looked forward to spending a romantic few days with Holmes in Switzerland.

Indeed, upon hearing of Holmes' plan, Watson expresses incredulity, to which Holmes is forced to reply:

"Go, then, my dear Watson, and if my humble counsel can ever be valued at so extravagant a rate as two pence a word, it waits your disposal night and day at the end of the Continental wire."

Holmes reassurances seem enough to quell Watson's reluctance, and so he heads to Lausanne to begin his investigation. This marks a very interesting twist in the case (and indeed, one quite reminiscent of the events found within The Hound of the Baskervilles) for throughout Watson's investigation he is forced to correspond with Holmes through telegrams. And write Watson does; indeed, he makes frequent reference to the wires he sends to Holmes, suggesting that they were numerous.

Holmes, of course, responds, and Watson tells us that his replies were often half-humourous. Their correspondence is quite light, despite the nature of the case, and one is instantly reminded of a long-distance communication between lovers. Holmes' playfulness, combined with Watson's eagerness, makes one wonder if it were these correspondences which later fell into the hands of Charles Augustus Milverton. We cannot doubt that Holmes' letters were quite sprightly indeed.

Eventually Watson's quest leads him to France. It is there, in the small town of Montpellier, that he stumbles across the man he believes to have been following the Lady Frances Carfax. Watson accosts him in the street, demanding to know where Lady Carfax is. The man's response is to give a bellow of anger and spring upon [Watson] like a tiger.

This leads to a very interesting meeting, for Watson tells us:

His hand was on my throat and my senses were nearly gone before an unshaven French ouvrier in a blue blouse darted out from a cabaret opposite, with a cudgel in his hand, and struck my assailant a sharp crack over the forearm, which made him leave go his hold.

Naturally, it is Holmes, disguised as a French worker, and wearing a blue blouse, that comes to Watson's rescue. Clearly, Holmes does not particularly like other men touching his Watson. He is certainly unwilling to stand on the sidelines and allow Watson to be assaulted.

We soon learn that Holmes' earlier demonstration of trust has not carried through the investigation, for as soon as Watson has recovered Holmes states:

"Well, Watson," said he, "a very pretty hash you have made of it! I rather think you had better come back with me to London by the night express."

The above statement has led to some rather interesting speculation, including the possibility that this case may have been a forgery. Indeed, as it was Watson who learned whom the Lady Frances Carfax left Baden with, it was Watson who essentially solved the case (even if Watson did not know it). Indeed, all of Watson's observations were necessary for Holmes to form his conclusion regarding Dr. Shlessinger and his wife.

In fact, Holmes formed this opinion before leaving London, and yet still followed Watson to the Continent. There is little in Holmes' actions that makes sense (throughout this case, actually) and this has led several scholars to date the case shortly after The Devil's Foot, suggesting that Holmes was still recovering from his exposure to the drug (this also explains Watson's need to seek medical treatment in the Turkish baths).

Oddly enough, Watson does not seem off-put by Holmes' arrival, telling us:

An hour afterwards, Sherlock Holmes, in his usual garb and style, was seated in my private room at the hotel.

Here we must simply borrow an expression worthy of the town they visited and state: Ooh, la, la.

Soon after, Holmes and Watson return to London, where Holmes begins investigating Dr. Shlessinger. It is not, however, until Lady Carfax's jewels turn up in a pawn shop that Holmes is able to set someone on Shlessinger's trail. This trail eventually leads to an undertaker, and upon arriving at the address, Holmes requests:

"Would go in, Watson? Your appearance inspires confidence."

Amusing, is it not, that Holmes, despite his jealous streak, is still willing to pimp Watson when it comes to their work.

Holmes' faith in Watson's charms does not go unfounded, and soon Watson returns with the information needed. Holmes, knowing now that time is of the essence, and that they cannot wait on a warrant, asks:

"Are you armed?"

To which Watson replies:

"My stick!"

While again this can be seen as evidence against Baring-Gould's date (had this case taken place shortly after the events in 3GAR, as Baring-Gould suggests, then we would fully expect to see a recently shot Watson carrying something a little more substantial than a stick) here we are more interested in Holmes' concern, and Watson's enthusiastic reassurance. Clearly, Watson knows just what to say to alleviate Holmes' worry.

Together, Holmes and Watson force their way into Shlessinger's home only to have Shlessinger accuse Holmes of being a common burglar. Holmes agrees, stating:

"My companion is also a dangerous ruffian."

It should be noted that Holmes does not need to search for these words. Indeed, they seem quite practiced and one cannot help but question whether this was the first time Watson masqueraded as a dangerous ruffian. It is entirely possible that we have been given a glimpse into Holmes and Watson's... private life. Indeed, one almost feels the need to reprimand Holmes; clearly this is neither the time nor the place to engage in role-play.

Holmes and Watson do eventually find the coffin, complete with the body of an elderly woman who is clearly not the Lady Frances Carfax. While relieved, this discovery leaves Holmes' quite irritable, for Lady Carfax's whereabouts are once again shrouded in darkness. Indeed, Holmes passes a sleepless night before finally putting the pieces together. The next morning, Watson tells us:

Finally, just after I had been called in the morning, he rushed into my room. He was in his dressing-gown, but his pale, hollow- eyed face told me that his night had been a sleepless one.

Endearing, is it not, that Holmes' first thought should be to rush to Watson's side. Clearly Holmes felt quite guilty for abandoning their bed in favour of his thoughts.

Watson does not, of course, begrudge Holmes the night passed alone, for it soon becomes clear that Holmes' overnight vigil was quite needed, Holmes managing to deduce the purpose behind Shlessinger's singular coffin purchase.

Having woken Watson, Holmes all but drags him back to Dr. Shlessinger's home, where he is only just in time to prevent Shlessinger from carrying out his plans to bury the Lady Frances Carfax alive.

Tearing off the coffin's lid, Holmes finds Lady Carfax sealed inside, overcome by chloroform fumes. It is here that Holmes becomes quite desperate, shouting:

"Is she gone, Watson? Is there a spark left? Surely we are not too late!"

Holmes is out of his depth here, and must rely entirely on Watson's medical knowledge. Watson reassures Holmes that Lady Carfax is still alive, but only just. Indeed, it is later revealed that the poor woman has been rendered senseless, Holmes and Watson forced to turn over her care to Mr. Green; a man hopelessly devoted to Lady Carfax's well being.

The case draws to a close, and Holmes and Watson are able to return again to Baker Street. Throughout this essay we have attempted to pinpoint a date for The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, and while this has proven quite difficult, it is your author's opinion that the story took place in the early summer of 1897. It is quite clear that they are involved in a serious relationship, and yet we see too many instances of doubt and uncertainty to date the case any later.

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