Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Norwood Builder


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Norwood Builder in August of 1895. Watson does not mention a year, but refers to Holmes having been back some months, implying that the case took place in 1894. Additional evidence for 1894 occurs with Watson's announcement that he has only recently sold his practice. The story was first published in November of 1903.


In answer to Holmes' statement that London has become a singularly uninteresting city, Holmes and Watson are visited by the unhappy John Hector McFarlane, a young lawyer wanted by the police on a charge of murder. McFarlane begs Sherlock Holmes to clear his name, but the case against him is far darker than his professed innocence would suggest. To begin with, the murdered man, Oldacre, had recently left his entire property to McFarlane in a will. Then, of course, there is McFarlane's family's history with Oldacre, which would again provide a strong motive. Just as Holmes begins to despair that Scotland Yard will hang their man, he is called back to the scene of the crime in order to examine fresh evidence. This evidence, however, proves to be far more useful to Holmes' cause then he would have expected, and from there all that is need is a chorus of "fire" to put the matter to rest.

The Subtext:

At the time of which I speak Holmes had been back for some months, and I, at his request, had sold my practice and returned to share the old quarters in Baker Street.

We have chosen to set The Norwood Builder in August of 1894, and using this date Holmes has been back in London some four or five months. In this time, Watson has sold his practice and returned to his rightful place in Baker Street. Interesting, is it not, that it takes Holmes' mere request for Watson to abandon a practice he has practically built from the ground up. Clearly, Watson has his priorities, and clearly these priorities do not lie in the field of his chosen profession.

A young doctor, named Verner, had purchased my small Kensington practice, and given with astonishingly little demur the highest price that I ventured to ask -- an incident which only explained itself some years later when I found that Verner was a distant relation of Holmes's, and that it was my friend who had really found the money.

While Watson selling his practice is quite remarkable, Holmes arranging to purchase Watson's practice (without Watson's knowledge) is absolutely incredible. Clearly Holmes wanted his Watson by his side, and clearly Holmes was willing to go to any length to achieve this result. In fact, the above statement is so staggering in its implications that it leaves the realm of subtext and enters the realm of text.

The above passages occur while Holmes and Watson are enjoying a comfortable morning in Baker Street. This scene of domesticity is soon interrupted by the arrival of John McFarlane --the unhappiest man in London. Mr. McFarlane is unable to state his case, however, before the arrival of Inspector Lestrade, who is bent on arresting McFarlane for the murder of Jonas Oldacre. Holmes convinces Lestrade to allow McFarlane to tell his tale, a request that Lestrade grudgingly grants.

"The case has certainly some points of interest," said he, in his languid fashion.

Holmes is, naturally, quite interested in the case, and yet we call to mind this statement for it is quite suggestive in its own right. The reader will undoubtedly recall that this is not the first time Watson has referred to Holmes as languid. It is fascinating to note, then, that according to Graham Robb, author of Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, languid was a term often employed by Victorian era authors to distinguish characters that would have been commonly referred to as inverts (homosexuals). This code word was intended to identify an invert to other inverts, and yet appear harmless to those unable to decipher the code. While we do not suggest that Doyle intended Holmes to be homosexual, it is quite remarkable that Watson should so frequently employ this veiled language.

Having listened to McFarlane's story, Holmes allows Lestrade to escort the man to Scotland Yard. Almost immediately upon his leaving, Holmes announces his intentions to seek out McFarlane's family in Blackheath. It is quite obvious that Watson offers to accompany him, for Holmes replies:

"No, my dear fellow, I don't think you can help me. There is no prospect of danger, or I should not dream of stirring out without you."

Holmes knows this will likely be a simple exercise in information gathering (i.e. grunt work) and so he does not wish to bore Watson. It is interesting, however, that Holmes still takes the time to acknowledge that, were there any prospect of danger, Holmes would immediately want Watson by his side. This level of trust is still quite touching, regardless of how many decades it spans.

Holmes heads out on his errand, and returns, sometime later, much depressed. Here, Watson tells us:

It was late when my friend returned, and I could see by a glance at his haggard and anxious face that the high hopes with which he had started had not been fulfilled. For an hour he droned away upon his violin, endeavouring to soothe his own ruffled spirits. At last he flung down the instrument and plunged into a detailed account of his misadventures.

We have mentioned before Holmes tendency to fail when he does not include Watson in his cases. This occurs quite frequently during Holmes' earlier cases and Watson's later absence from Baker Street. It is interesting, then, to note here that, in pursuing the case without Watson, Holmes has met failure.

It is telling, too, that Holmes should eventually plunge into a detailed account of his misadventures. Clearly Holmes still uses Watson for a sounding board, but what is more interesting is that this scene is very reminiscent of a spouse working out the day's problem by talking to their partner.

This implication of marriage is taken a step further when Holmes, having relayed his day, states:

"So, my dear Watson, there's my report of a failure."

This is quickly followed by his statement:

"However, there's no good talking any more about it, Watson."

Clearly this is Holmes' way of suggesting that they retire to bed, so that Watson might distract him from the frustrations of the day. Indeed, when next the story picks up, it is morning, and Watson tells us:

I do not know how far Sherlock Holmes took any sleep that night, but when I came down to breakfast I found him pale and harassed, his bright eyes the brighter for the dark shadows round them.

This is quite the interesting statement, for it implies that Watson usually does know Holmes' sleeping patterns. It implies, too, that all likelihood Holmes was still lying beside him when Watson drifted off, and that Watson woke to an empty bed.

Morning brings an apparent break in the case, and Holmes, still quite discontented, does not allow his black mood to reflect on Watson. Indeed, Holmes practically orders Watson to enjoy his breakfast, stating that the case can wait until after Watson has been fed.

"Take your breakfast, Watson, and we will go out together and see what we can do."

It is interesting, too, that Holmes, perhaps having learned that Watson's presence is necessary for the successful completion of a case, automatically assumes that Watson will accompany him. Indeed, Holmes even goes so far as to state:

"I feel as if I shall need your company and your moral support to-day."

There is such vulnerability in this statement, and Holmes is quite open about sharing it. That Holmes should admit such a thing, and should look to Watson for moral support, is quite remarkable; a clear indication of the intimate bond between them.

We deviate now from the story to point out a very interesting shift in Watson's language. Very often, prior to Holmes' death in The Final Problem, Watson, when referring to Holmes would use the appellation acquaintance, or companion. Here, we see that Watson uses, almost exclusively, the term friend. Indeed, this change seems to have taken place almost immediately after Holmes' return in The Empty House, implying that Holmes' return signified a shift in their intimacy.

As soon as Watson has finished his breakfast, he and Holmes head out to the Norwood to view Lestrade's fresh evidence. Upon seeing that Lestrade has discovered a bloody thumbprint which corresponds exactly with McFarlane's thumb, Holmes becomes quite excited. Here, Watson tells us:

Something in his tone caught my ear, and I turned to look at him. An extraordinary change had come over his face. It was writhing with inward merriment. His two eyes were shining like stars.

While it is still quite touching to know that Watson is capable of reading Holmes' moods solely by a shift in his tone, we are interested here in Watson's description. We have mentioned before Watson's obsession with Holmes' eyes, and yet here Watson is, thirteen years after their first meeting, currently sharing Holmes' bed, and he still finds himself drawn to Holmes' eyes. Clearly we must conclude that Watson is a man very much in love.

Holmes was outwardly calm, but his whole body gave a wriggle of suppressed excitement as he spoke.

We include the above passage, not because it presents any elements of subtextual interest, but because the image of Holmes wriggling with excitement is entirely too amusing to exclude. One wonders if Watson was intimately familiar with this so called wriggling.

This excitement soon shifts as Holmes begins anew with his investigation. Despite this, and Holmes usual single-mindedness, Holmes still expresses an interest in enjoying the day with his Watson.

"And now, Watson, let us have a little stroll round in the sunshine."

Perhaps even more remarkable is Watson's statement that:

With a confused brain, but with a heart into which some warmth of hope was returning, I accompanied my friend in a walk round the garden.

Here Watson speaks of the warmth of hope surging in his heart, and it is quite touching to note that this surge of emotion exists for Holmes. Watson knows that solving the case will bring Holmes happiness, and it is Holmes' happiness that Watson treasures above everything else.

Their walk complete, Holmes is quickly able to deduce what has been nagging at him all along. With the help of several constables, and a small bit of straw, Holmes is able to smoke out the true criminal; one Jonas Oldacre, who has staged his own death in an effort to frame John McFarlane. As the case comes to a close, we are left with a single curious question. Holmes tells Lestrade that he does not wish his name to appear in the matter, and then states:

"Not at all. The work is its own reward. Perhaps I shall get the credit also at some distant day when I permit my zealous historian to lay out his foolscap once more -- eh, Watson?"

Later, Holmes goes on to remark:

"If ever you write an account, Watson, you can make rabbits serve your turn."

Watson has told us that Holmes had forbidden him from publishing Holmes' cases, and we see here that Holmes considers this to be temporary. Watson does not, however, mention Holmes' motives, and so we find ourselves quite curious as to Holmes' motivation.

It is your author's opinion that Holmes' request stemmed from the shift in Holmes and Watson's relationship. Holmes knew that Watson would be tempted to embellish the stories with romanticisms, and so it is entirely likely that Holmes worried that Watson might write something which would draw attention to the exact nature of their relationship. By forbidding Watson from writing until after he had retired, Holmes prevented his career from being touched by scandal. While this may seem quite selfish, we must also suggest that Holmes' request was for Watson's benefit as well. As Watson had sold his practice, and was not writing, one must assume that Holmes' practice had become Watson's as well (for Watson is clearly not in want of money throughout these later cases).

Holmes' intention, then, was entirely honourable, for he wished to save both his and Watson's reputation until a time when it would no longer matter.

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