Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Priory School


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Priory School in May of 1901. Watson confirms the month, but does not give a year. As the story references past events occurring in 1900, we must conclude that this case took place after 1900. As the story was first published in January of 1904, we must therefore place the case between 1900 and 1904. Baring-Gould argues for an earlier date due to the Duke's marriage, which occurred in 1888. At the time of the story, he has a ten year-old son and, as he is now separated from his wife, it is reasonable to assume that Lord Saltire was born shortly after the Duke's marriage.


In what Watson describes as a dramatic entrance upon their small stage in Baker Street, Holmes is visited by a Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable, the founder and principal of a preparatory school in Northern England. Despite having fainted on Holmes and Watson's bearskin rug, Watson is quickly able to revive Dr. Huxtable so that he might tell his tale. One of Dr. Huxtable's students (Lord Saltire, the son of the Duke of Holdernesse) has disappeared from the school, and Huxtable, eager to avoid scandal and ruin, is quite anxious for the boy's safe return. Holmes immediately takes up the case, but not all is as it seems, the key to the case several sets of cattle tracks where no cattle should have been. The final solution is pure genius, and will make Holmes a very rich man.

The Subtext:

And yet his first action, when the door had closed behind him, was to stagger against the table, whence he slipped down upon the floor, and there was that majestic figure prostrate and insensible upon our bearskin hearthrug.

The story begins in Baker Street with the arrival of Dr. Huxtable, and we see in the above statement that he is quite out of his wits. While fascinating in terms of the case, above we are far more interested to note that Holmes and Watson have apparently taken to buying accessories for their home. This is quite amusing, for it is exceedingly domestic. One can almost picture Watson dragging Holmes into various shops so that they might find the perfect rug for their hearth.

Returning, however, to the story at hand, a dose of brandy soon revives Dr. Huxtable, and as soon as he is able, he tells Holmes of Lord Saltire's disappearance, begging Holmes to come with him down to the school. Holmes agrees, and soon he and Watson are on their way to Mackleton, and the priory school where Lord Saltire was a student.

Upon their arrival, Holmes' first order of business is to interview the boy's father. The Duke of Holdernesse is not at all pleased to find that Dr. Huxtable has involved the great Sherlock Holmes, but he does permit Holmes to continue with his investigation. He will not, however, satisfy Holmes' full curiosity, and it is during Holmes' interview with the Duke that Watson tells us:

I could see that there were other questions which Holmes would have wished to put, but the nobleman's abrupt manner showed that the interview was at an end.

Here we cannot help but note how well Watson knows his Holmes; or, indeed, how keen Watson's observation is where Holmes is concerned. Indeed, everything we, as a reader, have learned of Holmes, we have learned from Watson. It is fairly safe to assume, then, that Watson knows Holmes even better than he knows himself.

Shortly after their interview with the Duke, Holmes and Watson return to the rooms the school has set aside for them. There, Watson tells us:

Sherlock Holmes left the house alone, and only returned after eleven. He had obtained a large ordnance map of the neighbourhood, and this he brought into my room, where he laid it out on the bed, and, having balanced the lamp in the middle of it, he began to smoke over it, and occasionally to point out objects of interest with the reeking amber of his pipe.

While we have no doubt that Holmes and Watson were forced to sleep in separate rooms, it is quite amusing to note that Holmes still finds excuses to spend all of his time in Watson's room. Indeed, in reading the above statement is it quite easy to picture Holmes and Watson sitting hip to hip on Watson's bed, staring at the map while trying to suppress the inevitable well of desire which surged between them whenever they were presented with a locked room and functional bed.

Indeed, the temptation appeared to be too great for Holmes, for the next morning Watson tells us:

The day was just breaking when I woke to find the long, thin form of Holmes by my bedside.

That Holmes was unable to pass the night without his Watson is quite endearing.

In truth Holmes has been up for some time, returning just in time for Watson to wake; and it is quite remarkable that Holmes knows Watson's habits well enough to be present at the moment Watson awakes. Indeed, this becomes quite evident when we note Holmes' next comment:

"Now, Watson, there is cocoa ready in the next room."

Here we cannot help but note how fortunate Watson truly was, to have a boyfriend willing to wake up early just to make him cocoa.

Watson appears to know this, quite well, for instead of answering Holmes, he merely tells us:

His eyes shone, and his cheek was flushed with the exhilaration of the master workman who sees his work lie ready before him. A very different Holmes, this active, alert man, from the introspective and pallid dreamer of Baker Street. I felt, as I looked upon that supple figure, alive with nervous energy, that it was indeed a strenuous day that awaited us.

The above sentence is practically pornographic in nature. Indeed, Watson speaks of Holmes' supple figure, alive with nervous energy and then makes reference to a strenuous day before them. Watson is not at all subtle in describing Holmes' arousal, either, for he clearly mentions Holmes' shining eyes and flushed cheeks. Clearly, the country air does Holmes a wonder of good. One wonders, then, if it was Watson's suggestion that they retire in Sussex; indeed, one can well imagine that Watson quite liked this side of Holmes.

Some time later, Holmes and Watson finally make it out of Watson's small bedroom, and it is upon the morass that they begin their investigation. They soon pick up the bicycle tracks belonging to the German instructor who disappeared alongside the boy. He has long been a suspect, but the discovery of Heidegger's body instantly dismisses the theory.

Uncertain what to do with the body, Watson offers to take a note back to the school, but Holmes will hear nothing of the idea, stating:

"But I need your company and assistance."

Note that Holmes' first thought is for Watson's company. Clearly, Holmes would be quite lonely without his Watson, and clearly he has reached a point in his relationship with Watson where he is not afraid to admit this.

Their dilemma is solved with the spotting of a local shepherd, and Holmes dispatches the peasant with a note before he and Watson continue on their way. They soon find themselves in a small town just outside of the Duke's estate, and there, after meeting the landlord of the local inn, Holmes' hackles are raised and he soon finds himself working towards the case's conclusion.

Several questions remain, however, but before they can be answered Holmes must first satisfy a curiosity. This will require Watson's aid, and Holmes' request, one must admit, is quite amusing.

"If you bend your back and support yourself upon the wall, I think that I can manage."

Oh. My.

Having now obtained all the information that Holmes requires, he and Watson return to the priory school. The next morning, they set out for Holdernesse Hall to see the Duke. There, Holmes first seeks the Duke's assurances regarding the promised reward of six-thousand pounds. Upon hearing the Duke's confirmation, Watson tells us:

My friend rubbed his thin hands together with an appearance of avidity which was a surprise to me, who knew his frugal tastes.

And here we must suggest that Holmes, who has never once shown a particular interest in wealth, was now in need of funds. Could it be that Holmes, having heard Watson's request that they move to the country, wished to purchase Watson a country villa? Curious, is it not, that it is in Holmes' later years that he expresses an interest in nature.

Prior to Holmes' return, we cannot imagine him retiring outside of the city of London, nor can we picture him keeping bees, and yet that is exactly what he does. Is it unreasonable, then, to suggest that Holmes' move to Sussex was Watson's idea, and that Holmes agreed simply because he knew it would make Watson happy? And if this is the case, is it also unreasonable to suggest that, having committed to the idea of retirement, Holmes would wish to raise enough money to buy Watson a place that they might call home? Admittedly, this theory is suggestive of a later date for this case, and yet, why else should Holmes request six thousand pounds when his rates were on a fixed scale?

Events come together quickly as Holmes accuses the Duke of knowing exactly where his son is. Part of the story comes out, and it is upon the Duke's statement that the German master's murderer has escaped that Watson tells us:

Sherlock Holmes smiled demurely.

An interesting description, we must agree, for the image of a blushing, shy Holmes is not one we would expect to see. Indeed, one wonders if Watson is referring to Holmes in this moment, or if his words came from an earlier memory; perhaps that of Holmes' reaction to their first kiss.

As it turns out, Holmes has already arranged for the man's arrest, and so the Duke is now free to finish his tale. The Duke tells Homes that it was his eldest son, James (who had been masquerading as the Duke's secretary) that arranged, with the aid of a known criminal (Hayes), the abduction of the Duke's rightful heir. The Duke tells us:

"James came into contact with this fellow Hayes, because the man was a tenant of mine, and James acted as agent. The fellow was a rascal from the beginning, but, in some extraordinary way, James became intimate with him. He had always a taste for low company."

This is one of the many side plots found within Canon which depicts a homosexual liaison or relationship between two supporting characters. Given the prevalence of this theme, it is safe to assume that Watson's frankness here existed because he was unable to exhibit frankness elsewhere.

Indeed, James and Hayes relationship appears to be quite serious, for James, despite now knowing that Hayes has committed murder, goes out of his way to arrange for Hayes safe passage. Indeed, he puts Hayes safety above even his own, risking his father's wrath, public scandal, and imprisonment until Hayes has safely fled the area.

As the case ends, it is interesting to note that Holmes agrees to hush up the matter. While we have seen Holmes do this in the past, it is quite interesting to note Holmes' motives here. Indeed, they appear to be entirely financial in nature. As this seems to stand in direct contrast to Holmes' nature, one must examine the potential for an alternate motive.

During his narrative, the Duke tells Holmes:

"I loved with such a love as comes only once in a lifetime."

One wonders, then, if Holmes felt some sense of connection with the Duke, for he too knew what it was like to love with such a love as only comes once in a lifetime. Could it have been that Holmes felt some sense of kinship with the Duke, and so began to understand the Duke's motives? We cannot doubt that Holmes would do anything for Watson, including committing several felonies, and so it is not unreasonable to suggest that Holmes understood, only too well, the Duke's motives.

Mostly, however, we must concur that Holmes' motives were driven by the Duke's six-thousand pound cheque. Clearly, Holmes was thinking entirely of his and Watson's impending retirement.

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