Decoding the Subtext: The Noble Bachelor
Dates (with some notes):
Baring-Gould dates the Adventure of the Noble Bachelor in October of 1886, just a few days after The Resident Patient. I have issues with this date for two reasons. First, in this case Watson mentions his impending marriage, which, if The Noble Bachelor did occur several days after The Resident Patient, then there should be some mention of Watson's marriage in The Resident Patient. There is not. It is also worthwhile to note that almost all scholars agree that Watson met Miss Morstan in September of 1888, and while Baring-Gould subscribes to the three-marriage theory (i.e. that Watson was married three times) there is no indication anywhere in Canon (except via conjecture) that Watson was married to anyone other than Miss Morstan. We can then hypothesize that either this case occurred after The Sign of Four, in which case it should be dated in late 1888 or early 1889, or that Watson has been married several times; in which case, the date given by Baring-Gould for The Resident Patient is wrong. The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor was first published in April of 1892, and within the story Watson refers to the case as a four-year old drama. This would imply a date of 1888, possibly in the late part of the year, which would tie in to Watson's impending marriage to Miss Morstan. It is your author's opinion, then, that The Noble Bachelor took place in the late fall of 1888.
In The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, Lord St. Simon seeks Holmes' help in locating his missing bride. It appears as though she has vanished, shortly into the wedding breakfast which followed their wedding ceremony. Holmes comes to an immediate conclusion, but is unwilling to reveal the truth behind the matter until he has had a chance to add a touch of the dramatic. It is interesting to note that Arthur Conan Doyle ranked The Noble Bachelor at the bottom of his list of favourite stories. Complete with a red-herring, this is one of the few stories to end on a good note, for most of the characters involved.
Before we begin, it should be noted that The Noble Bachelor is one of the few stories that is short on subtext. This is particularly interesting when one considers Doyle's thoughts on the story. Could it be that this tale ranked low on his list due in part to the lack of subtextual content?
It was a few weeks before my own marriage, during the days when I was still sharing rooms with Holmes in Baker Street, that he came home from an afternoon stroll to find a letter on the table waiting for him.
The above sentence is interesting for three reasons. The first is the time period in which Watson was writing this story. The Noble Bachelor was published in 1892, almost a full year after Holmes' apparent death in The Final Problem. It can be argued, then, that Watson refers to the past sharing of rooms with Holmes, not as a result of his marriage, but as a result of Holmes' demise. The second is the reference to his marriage. Watson, when reflecting upon the case, makes no mention of this marriage. In fact, Watson's wife-to-be does not appear, nor is she spoken of. There are two schools of thought on the reasons behind this. The first lies in the theory that Watson's wife (wives) was a mere literary creation. The second is the theory that Watson, out of respect for Holmes, or perhaps at Holmes' request, chose not to remind Holmes of his impending marriage. Either way, both theories are quite interesting in terms of subtext.
Here, however, we present a third theory. The Noble Bachelor revolves entirely around the disappearance of Lord St. Simon's bride. As the case resolves, we discover that Mrs. St. Simon was previously married and believed herself to be a widow. Shortly after the ceremony, she discovers that her late husband is, in fact, alive, and immediately abandons her new husband for the man she first married, and still loves.
There are some very interesting parallels here in terms of Holmes and Watson and their relationship. During the writing of this, Watson believes Holmes to be dead. We will later learn, as will Watson, that this is not the case. This case, then, could be construed as foreshadowing for Holmes' eventual return, and Watson's return to Holmes' side. It is also fascinating to note that Watson chooses this particular story to mention his impending marriage -- a story where marriage results in scandal, confusion and heartbreak. When combined with the parallels mentioned above, this is very suggestive of the nature of Holmes and Watson's relationship, and indeed, hints that Watson may have considered his relationship with Holmes to be akin to a marriage.
We can now turn to the case itself, for while short in subtext, several subtextual elements do exist. The case begins with Watson alone and bored in the sitting room in Baker Street. He is attempting to pass the time with the day's newspapers, and yet, cannot seem to stop obsessing over a letter Holmes has received. Holmes returns, and Watson immediately points out this letter, recounting the two letters Holmes received that morning. This is an interesting beginning to the story, for Watson seems quite preoccupied with Holmes' correspondence. This has always struck me as slightly unusual, for although Holmes often received cases via post, Watson seems determined to know every aspect of Holmes' life. It is yet another example of Watson's continual obsession with Holmes.
Holmes reads the letter, out loud, for Watson's benefit, and then the two plunge head first into the potential case. Holmes, unable to make headway with the letter and his 'good old' indexes, turns to Watson for help.
I think that I must turn to you Watson, for something more solid.
Watson's role in Holmes' life has always been that of an anchor. Watson is solid, reliable, dependable, and, indeed, the foundation on which Holmes' life is built. Holmes needs Watson. He depends on Watson. He relies on Watson. This statement suggests that Holmes is well aware of this; possibly one of the reasons he might have requested that Watson refrain from mentioning his impending marriage. Holmes, as we will see in The Sign of Four, does not approve of Watson marrying.
Watson, acceding to Holmes' wishes, immediately begins reading to Holmes from the week's papers. This is yet another example in which either Holmes or Watson have read to the other; an incredibly intimate act. Here, too, we see that Watson, despite being preoccupied by his task, is still quite observant of Holmes.
"Terse and to the point," remarked Holmes, stretching his long, thin legs towards the fire.
Note the description Watson gives of Holmes, making particular reference to his long, thin legs. Watson, I suspect, is a leg man.
Watson's reading continues for nearly an hour, ending only with the arrival of their client. Again we are treated to a demonstration of just how indispensable Watson has become in terms of Holmes' professional activities.
Do not dream of going, Watson...
Naturally, Watson stays, for regardless of how many times he has been witness to Holmes' remarkable talents, Watson is perpetually intrigued by Holmes' process of deduction.
Returning to our theory above (that the parallels between the St. Simons and Holmes/Watson were intentional and meant to give insight into Holmes and Watson's relationship) we see further indication that St. Simon's story is meant to parallel Holmes and Watson's, for during an interview with Lord St. Simon, Holmes learns of Simon's past lover; a woman considered by Scotland Yard to be one of the prime suspects. It is here that Holmes states:
"Still, jealousy is a strange transformer of characters."
It is quite easy to infer that this statement pertains, not only to the case, but to Holmes as well. I see no reason to doubt that Holmes would have been jealous of any other person to come into Watson's life, particularly when said person was to become Watson's wife.
Later, Lord St. Simon recalls something that his bride had said, moments before leaving the ceremony. She makes use of the term 'claim-jumping', which we later discover is a reference to her previous marriage and the duty she felt she owed her first husband. This is interesting, particularly in the context of Watson's impending marriage, for I do suspect that Holmes felt as though he had some claim over Watson, and likely Watson was aware of this: this is quite obvious when one examines the case itself, with its various references to marriage and pre-existing claims.
Watson, too, I suspect, felt as though he had some claim over Holmes. This is particularly evident when we examine the detail in which Watson describes Holmes, as well as the particular attention Watson gives Holmes.
"What's up, then?" asked Holmes with a twinkle in his eye.
Watson's tendency to refer to Holmes' eyes when attempting to depict Holmes' emotions is a reoccurring theme throughout Canon.
It is obvious, too, that Watson feels some sense of dependency on Holmes, for a short while later, after Holmes has left to conduct an investigation on his own, Watson remarks:
It was after five o'clock when Sherlock Holmes left me, but I had no time to be lonely, for within an hour there arrived a confectioner's man with a very large flat box.
A clear indication that Watson is often lonely in Holmes' absence. If, indeed, Watson's marriage(s) were not fabrications, then it is reasonable to suggest that Watson's marriage was the direct result of Watson's loneliness. Holmes was frequently away, or locked in his room when the depression that came with the conclusion of a case was upon him, and it is reasonable to assume that Watson would have likely sought out affection and attention from other individuals, perhaps as a means of supplementing the affection and attention he lacked in his relationship with Holmes.
The conclusion of this case is also interesting in terms of subtext, for, aside from being one of the few cases in which Holmes and Watson entertain dinner guests (and, although arriving at Holmes' invitation, Watson refers to Mrs. St. Simon and her previous husband as our guests) the final passage is also quite suggestive.
"Ah, Watson," said Holmes, smiling, "perhaps you would not be very gracious either, if, after all the trouble of wooing and wedding, you found yourself deprived in an instant of wife and of fortune. I think that we may judge Lord St. Simon very mercifully and thank our stars that we are never likely to find ourselves in the same position. Draw your chair up and hand me my violin, for the only problem we have still to solve is how to while away these bleak autumnal evenings."
Again, we are drawn into the St. Simon/Watson marriage parallel, and it is unclear whether Holmes is referring to St. Simon or Watson's impending marriage. It is curious, too, to note Holmes' suggestion of whiling away these bleak autumn evenings. Evenings is given as a plural, which suggests that either Watson's marriage is still a ways off, or that Holmes anticipates that it will not occur. I am inclined towards the latter, as Holmes mentions that we are never likely to find ourselves in the same position, implying that neither man will marry. Even removing the reference to Watson's wedding, it is quite suggestive that Holmes would choose to pass the time by playing his violin for Watson, something that again can be construed as quite intimate and, indeed, romantic.
I mentioned above that this case was short on subtext, and yet, as you can see from the analysis, the subtext is still present. I think, perhaps, that is the most telling feature of all.