Decoding the Subtext: The Lion's Mane
Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Lion's Mane in August of 1909. Holmes tells us that the story begins in the early part of July, 1907. Aside from Baring-Gould's meteorological evidence (which is the basis for his year), we have no reason to reject Holmes' date. The story was first published in November of 1926.
Sherlock Holmes, now retired and living in Sussex, finds himself once again in the midst of an investigation when Fitzroy McPherson, the science master from the nearby preparatory school, The Gables, is seemingly murdered. Holmes is there to witness his death, the man staggering up from the beach before succumbing to obvious pain, his body covered in red welts, his final words a reference to the lion's mane. Holmes' investigation turns up no end of suspects, but, for the life of him, he cannot put the facts together in order to form a case. All of that changes, however, when McPherson's dog is discovered dead; having died in the same manner as his master. McPherson's reference to the lion's mane comes back to Holmes then, and Holmes, relying on his collection of obscure knowledge, is soon able to put a name to the killer; though not before Ian Murdoch, the school's mathematics master and one of Holmes' original suspects, falls victim to the same creature that cost McPherson his life.
Before we begin with our examination of the story itself, we must first examine the question of authorship. The reader will undoubtedly recall our analysis of The Blanched Soldier, where we discounted Holmes as the author and suggested instead that it was, in fact, Watson who authored the story. Here we must examine the same issue, for again we are presented with a story narrated by Holmes.
Like The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, Holmes appearing as the narrator (and seeming author) has led to much speculation. It should be noted, however, that, unlike BLAN, the story's style is far more in keeping with what we would expect from Sherlock Holmes. There is a sense of bluntness in Holmes' words that is far more suited to his personality than to Watson's. The short, precise style, combined with an elaborate focus on the process of deduction, has led numerous scholars to agree that Holmes was, in fact, the author. For ourselves, we suspect a collaboration; with Holmes writing the bulk of the tale and Watson editing it to make it suitable for mass publication. This would certainly explain Holmes' seemingly uncharacteristic lapses into romantic, verbose prose.
For those scholars who reject Holmes' claim of authorship, it is interesting to note that several theories surrounding this story's authenticity have also arisen. Given the nature of the story, it is entirely possible that Watson wrote the tale in order to conceal some element of Holmes' retired life. Indeed, it has even been purported that Watson wrote The Lion's Mane in order to distract attention from Holmes' counter-espionage services, which began long before the events contained within His Last Bow (Holmes having retired before the age of fifty has often led to speculation that he had not, in fact, retired at all). Relations between England and Germany were quite strained, after all, even as early as 1904, and so, who better to combat the sudden rise in foreign operatives than Sherlock Holmes.
Alternatively, the student of subtext can also suggest that LION was written as a further attempt to conceal Holmes and Watson's decidedly intimate relationship.
Returning now to the story at hand (and, more importantly, the subtext contained within) our first order of business is to answer the question: Where is Watson?
Recall that Holmes appears alone in the story, telling us:
At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional weekend visit was the most that I ever saw of him.
The above statement has been given as evidence in favour of Watson's second (third) marriage, several scholars suggesting that Watson's newest wife was not as lax as Mary when it came to Watson's involvement with Holmes. It has also been suggested that Holmes and Watson, without the commonality of their work, had drifted apart.
We, of course, must dismiss both of these claims. We have disputed the presence of a second (third) wife in our analysis of BLAN, and we can safely state that Watson has not tired of Holmes (for why else would he continue, even beyond this date, to publish Holmes' cases?). Indeed, all other evidence would suggest that Holmes and Watson remained quite close throughout Holmes' retirement. The reader will also undoubtedly recall our suggestion that Watson is, in fact, living with Holmes in Sussex.
So why, then, is Holmes working without his Watson? The answer, quite simply, is thus:
Recall that Holmes tells us:
It occurred after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London.
We know Holmes has for some time desired to live a life of natural solitude, and yet, to say that Holmes has been yearning for long years a change of scenery is quite preposterous. Surely this is not the same man that Watson once described with the following paragraph:
He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime. Appreciation of nature found no place among his many gifts, and his only change was when he turned his mind from the evil-doer of the town to track down his brother of the country. [CARD]
If the above statement, then, does not belong to Holmes, then we must suggest that it belongs to the narrator. We have speculated that the writing of this story was done in collaboration, and so we must now speculate that the above passage belongs, not to Holmes, but to Watson. If this is the case, then Watson is clearly still living in Sussex, and, what's more, he must also have been present during this investigation.
With this in mind, we can now safely say that Holmes' comments on Watson passing beyond his ken are nothing more than a blind.
Indeed, we are soon given further evidence to suggest exactly this, for Holmes tells us:
My house is lonely. I, my old housekeeper, and my bees have the estate all to ourselves.
While several scholars have suggested that Holmes was referring to Mrs. Hudson in his reference to an old housekeeper, here we must dismiss this claim. Why would Mrs. Hudson sell Baker Street and move with Holmes to Sussex in order to continue to serve him when by all accounts Holmes' princely rental payments have made her a rich woman? Surely her loyalty to Holmes did not stretch that far.
If Holmes' old housekeeper, then, is not Mrs. Hudson, who is he or she? Let us examine the word housekeeper. Webster's offers two definitions for housekeeper, the first being an individual paid to keep house, the second, simply, a housewife. If, then, we replace the term housekeeper with housewife, and the term housewife with wife, and the term wife with spouse, then clearly we see that Holmes' reference to a housekeeper is in fact a veiled reference to Dr. Watson.
Returning now to the story, we are soon introduced to Harold Stackhurst, Holmes' only apparent friend. Holmes tells us:
He [Stackhurst] and I were always friendly from the day I came to the coast, and he was the one man who was on such terms with me that we could drop in on each other in the evenings without an invitation.
This is quite interesting for a man who, save Watson, had no friends. Here we must speculate on several theories regarding Stackhurst's existence, and his friendship with Holmes.
To begin, it is entirely possible that Holmes' account is accurate; that Stackhurst is, in fact, a mere friend. Alternatively, one might also suppose that Stackhurst had become Holmes' lover in his later years. If Watson truly did remarry, then it is quite possible that Holmes broke off their intimacy and, as a more confident, well adjusted person (in his later years) Holmes sought out a new and less complicated relationship. It should be noted that this theory does not fit with the facts we have gathered so far.
It is also quite possible that Holmes and Watson were both able to name Stackhurst a friend (and if this is the case then we have no doubt that it was Watson who initiated this friendship and later introduced Holmes to Stackhurst).
Finally, there is also a distinct possibly that Stackhurst is a figment of Watson's imagination. Not wanting to include himself in the story, Watson might very well have created an original character, through which Watson could tell his own story. This theory makes a good deal of sense, for Watson has long been trying to convince his public that he was in London while Holmes was in Sussex.
While it is your author's opinion that the third option is the more likely, here we wish to examine the second option; that Holmes and Watson both claimed Stackhurst's friendship. It is here that we deviate from the story itself and examine the seeming triangle between Stackhurst, McPherson, and Murdock.
Indeed, there is some indication that Stackhurst was slightly closer to McPherson than a mere friendship would warrant. This becomes quite obvious when we examine Stackhurst's reaction to McPherson's death. Holmes tells us:
...while Stackhurst, dazed at this tragedy, remained by the body.
Stackhurst spends most of Holmes' investigation dazed and horrified by McPherson's death, but we are given a clear indication of just how deep this tragedy has touched him when he later accompanies Holmes to interview McPherson's fiancée. Holmes tells us:
Stackhurst's nerves were near the surface after all he had endured.
Stackhurst, however, appears to have had some competition for McPherson's attention (aside from McPherson's fiancée that is), for upon meeting Murdock, Murdock states:
"I had intended to do so. I have lost today the only person who made The Gables habitable."
We later learn that Murdock claimed McPherson as his closest, and only, friend.
This is, of course, mere speculation, for the story neither confirms nor desires any interest between Stackhurst and McPherson, or Murdock and McPherson. It is, however, interesting to speculate, for one can only imagine the sense of peace and belonging Holmes and Watson must have felt upon meeting a like-minded couple.
We return now to Holmes and Watson, and the conclusion of the story. As Holmes discovers the truth behind McPherson's death (and the jellyfish responsible for it), he confirms an aspect of his personality that we, as both readers and students of subtext, have long suspected:
Women have seldom been an attraction to me.
Here we cannot help but note that Holmes remains silent on the topic of men.