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Decoding the Subtext: The Musgrave Ritual

Dates:

The Musgrave Ritual is another of Holmes' earlier cases (again, pre-Watson). Baring-Gould dates the case in the fall of 1879, suggesting that it was recounted to Watson during the same year as The Gloria Scott (possibly some months later). The Musgrave Ritual was first published in May of 1893.

Synopsis:

In The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, Holmes recounts one of the first cases that came his way after he'd established a consulting detective practice. In this story, an old university acquaintance (Reginald Musgrave) seeks Holmes' aid in unravelling the mystery of his missing butler and maid. The key to the case turns out to be an ancient family ritual, passed down from father to son through countless generations. In order to find the whereabouts of the butler, Holmes must unlock this mystery, and in doing so, discovers a long lost relic of historical significance.

The Subtext:

The story opens, as many stories do, with Holmes and Watson sitting beside the fire in their shared apartments in Baker Street. This is a particularly domestic scene, in which Watson assumes the role of a frustrated housewife, irritated by his husband's lack of order and cleanliness. Indeed, Watson goes so far as to nag Holmes to tidy his clutter, to which Holmes agrees, though he quickly manages to distract Watson by giving Watson something that he wants: an account of one of Holmes' prior cases.

"Yes, my boy, these were all done prematurely before my biographer had come to glorify me."

There are two points of interest in the above quoted line that must be considered. The first is the terminology Holmes uses to address Watson. It should be pointed out that this is not the first time (nor the last) that Holmes refers to Watson as 'my'. There are several incidences of 'my boy', 'my Watson', 'my Boswell' and 'my biographer' seen throughout Canon. The 'my' is very indicative of Holmes' possessive nature when it comes to Watson. It is obvious here (as elsewhere) that Holmes feels as though he has some claim (ownership, if you will) over Watson, and he does not appear to hesitate in making this fact known. In fact, one would be quite surprised if they were to count the number of time Holmes refers to Watson as his.

We next turn our attention to Holmes' appreciation of Watson's work. So often in Canon Holmes is scornful of Watson's attempts to document his cases, and yet, here, he clearly indicates that it is Watson's work that has glorified him, and indeed, made him as well known and sought after as he has become.

The exchange between the two men continues, with Holmes teasing Watson regarding the state of their rooms, and taunting him regarding the case, until he eventually abandons his mischief and recounts the tale (much to Watson's excitement).

It is notable here that, again, Holmes is sharing a distinct piece of his past, something that, until this time period, he was unwilling to do. This is a clear indication of the trust that has formed between the two men, and of Holmes' desire to share his past with his only friend and companion.

One particularly fascinating aspect of this case is the shift between the past and present. We are taken away by Holmes' story, and yet, a piece of us remains with Holmes, ensconced beside a welcoming fire, as the two men sit close together; Holmes recounting his tale, Watson listening with rapt attention.

There is something distinctly intimate in the art of storytelling, especially when said story is told in a one on one setting. This becomes particularly true when the story being told contains a personal history, as it does in this instance. Holmes, in sharing the details of his past, entrusts Watson with his history. As we mentioned above, this is a clear indication of trust, and it is important to note that, in all of Canon, no other figure in Holmes' life has elicited such trust.

This can be taken a step further when we consider the fact that Holmes must have known that Watson would write of the case, and publish it. The trust he shows here goes beyond merely telling the story and trusting Watson to listen. Holmes trusts Watson to listen, but more than that, he trusts Watson to record the tale and share it with the world, something that requires a good deal of faith.

In this instance, it is the telling of the story, rather than the story itself, that is ripe with subtext. Here, we share Watson's sense of discovery and we experience the faith and trust Holmes places in Watson. Here, too, we are privy to a glimpse of the bond between the two men; a bond that, by modern day standards, transcends a casual friendship, becoming something entirely more intimate.

 
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