Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Reigate Squires


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Reigate Squires in April of 1887. As this is the exact date given by Watson, most scholars concur with Baring-Gould's chronology. The Reigate Squires first appeared in the Strand Magazine in June of 1893. It is interesting to note that The Reigate Squires is one of 24 stories written during the time of Holmes' supposed death. Watson, it would appear, turned to writing Holmes' biography as a means of overcoming his grief.


Holmes, exhausted from a rather strenuous case in France, becomes quite ill, much to Watson's horror. Convinced that his friend is in need of a holiday, Watson takes Holmes to a friend's estate near Reigate, in Surrey, for some fresh country air and much needed relaxation. Much to Watson's chagrin, a case seems to find them, and before long Holmes is in the midst of a most singular investigation, where a common burglary isn't what it seems, and the murder of a coachman is tied directly to a disputed legal claim, all of which Holmes is able to deduce from a single piece of torn paper.

The Subtext:

On referring to my notes I see that it was upon the fourteenth of April that l received a telegram from Lyons which informed me that Holmes was lying ill in the Hotel Dulong.

The story begins, as most of Watson's reminiscences begin, with a referral to his notes. The above paragraph is not unusual, nor is it particularly telling, and yet, I am sure you will agree, Watson's reaction is, if not unexpected, very suggestive:

Within twenty-four hours I was in his sick-room and was relieved to find that there was nothing formidable in his symptoms.

I want to draw particular attention to the timeline given by Watson. Watson states that within twenty-four hours he was by Holmes' side. According to Google Maps, the distance (as the crow flies) between London and Lyons is 460 miles (740 kilometres). Most sources agree that trains (by the turn of the century) could travel at speeds upwards of 70 miles per hour. Even using this top speed, and considering a direct route, it would have taken Watson 6.6 hours to travel from London to Lyons.

This does not include time for Watson to pack, or make his way to the train station, or purchase his ticket. And it is highly likely that the voyage itself took a good deal longer than 7 hours. Upon reaching Lyons, Watson would have needed to hail a hansom and make his way across the city to the Hotel Dulong. It is evident, then, that upon receiving Holmes' telegram, Watson, quite literally, dropped everything and rushed to his friend's side.

This is particularly interesting if we consider Baring-Gould's chronology. Baring-Gould suggests that, during this time, Watson was married and in practice. If this is the case, then it is highly probable that Watson cast both his wife, and his practice, to the wayside in his efforts to reach Holmes. Clearly, this haste on Watson's behalf goes beyond that of a worried friend.

We must then consider Holmes' illness. According to Watson, Holmes has been on the continent for two months, investigating an exceedingly high profile case. Watson's whereabouts are unknown, yet it is reasonable to infer that he had remained in London. Often we have seen Holmes lapse into various states of depression following the closure of a case, and yet, this is the first time said depression has led to an actual illness. Could it be that Watson's presence (or lack thereof) was in someway responsible for Holmes' weakened constitution?

Three days later we were back in Baker Street together; but it was evident that my friend would be much the better for a change, and the thought of a week of springtime in the country was full of attractions to me also.

We now know that Watson remained by Holmes' side for three days (again, ignoring his duty to his practice, and his wife) before bringing Holmes home to Baker Street. Upon arriving in London, Watson's first action is not to head home to his family and business, but rather, to take his friend on a week long retreat into the country.

It has been argued by some that this is indicative of Watson's bachelorhood (i.e. proof that he is not married at this time), but if Baring-Gould is correct, and Watson is married, then this passage is highly suggestive of just where Watson's priorities lie.

It is interesting, too, to note Watson's language in the above passage. He speaks of a week of springtime in the country, and states that it was full of attractions for him also. A more fitting description of a romantic getaway I have yet to read.

Watson decides upon taking Holmes to visit my old friend, Colonel Hayter, who had come under my professional care in Afghanistan in Reigate, near Surrey. As many know, the meeting of friends is a rather significant event in the development of a relationship.

A little diplomacy was needed, but when Holmes understood that the establishment was a bachelor one, and that he would be allowed the fullest freedom, he fell in with my plans and a week after our return from Lyons we were under the colonel's roof.

Here it is curious to note Holmes' reluctance to accept Watson's invitation, and the eventual grounds on which he accepted said invitation. That Holmes would feel more comfortable recovering from his illness in a bachelor establishment is one of the many examples of Holmes' discomfort with women.

The author also wishes to draw attention to the line: he fell in with my plans. The wording here is quite ambiguous, and brings to mind plans of seduction; two men, alone in a bachelor establishment on the outskirts of London, enjoying the country air...

Unfortunately for Watson (and the reader) his plans are waylaid, as an interesting problem, criminal in nature, soon peaks Holmes' interest. Hayter, Watson's old friend, inadvertently mentions a recent burglary in the district, the details of which prove quite singular, and, indeed, impossible for Holmes to resist. Watson, it is safe to assume, is less than impressed.

But I held up a warning finger.

"You are here for a rest, my dear fellow. For heaven's sake don't get started on a new problem when your nerves are all in shreds."

He quietly scolds Holmes, and one can easily sense his worry, and indeed his disappointment in this turn of events. We get the sense that he has been longing for a chance to spend some quiet, simple time with Holmes, and so, when Holmes' attention is diverted, Watson seems quite put out by it.

Holmes agrees, reluctantly, to stay out of the affair, but when burglary turns to murder, Holmes can no longer resist the case's pull.

We aren't shown Watson's reaction to this fresh development, although one can easily imagine Watson's worry and irritation, for, turning to Watson, Holmes says:

"All right, Watson, I don't intend to meddle."

The arrival of an inspector requesting Holmes' aid quickly alters the situation, and Holmes is left with little choice but to go back on his word. He does this good-humouredly, but not without an apology (of sorts) for straining Watson's nerves.

"The fates are against you, Watson," said he, laughing.

Watson knows when he is beat, and graciously accedes to Holmes' wishes, stepping back (one can almost picture with a flourished bow) and leaving Holmes to his work. Holmes begins as he always has, with a line of questioning only Watson seems to understand, before heading off with the inspector to view the scene of the crime.

The inspector returns alone, some time later, and seems quite off-put by Holmes' methods. He states that Holmes was behaving queerly and that he was very much excited, his tone suggesting concern and perhaps a touch of uncertainty. Watson is quick to interject, defending his friend as only Holmes' loyal companion can.

"I don't think you need alarm yourself," said I. "I have usually found that there was method in his madness."

The above is said with some affection, and one can almost picture Watson's fond smile as he thinks of Sherlock Holmes. He has given in to Holmes' desire to be working, and, in doing so, has found himself rather content with the knowledge that Holmes has not changed. One need only read between the lines to sense Watson's great relief.

The inspector does not seem comforted by Watson's reassurances, but leads Watson and the Colonel out to meet Holmes, where, Holmes' greets Watson quite warmly.

"Watson, your country trip has been a distinct success. I have had a charming morning."

Watson, it would appear, certainly knows how to show Holmes a good time. It is no wonder, then, that Holmes has willingly kept Watson by his side for all of these (six) years.

Holmes, after recounting his morning's adventures, leads the party up to the house, where they run into the home's owners, Alec Cunningham, and his father, Mr. Cunningham. It is curious here to note that Watson, upon introducing Alec Cunningham, refers to him as a dashing young fellow, as again we are privy to Watson's appreciation of the male sex.

Holmes, suspicious of the Cunninghams, distracts the inspector from revealing too much by feigning illness. Watson, as we will see below, is quite alarmed.

My poor friend's face had suddenly assumed the most dreadful expression. His eyes rolled upward, his features writhed in agony, and with a suppressed groan he dropped on his face upon the ground. Horrified at the suddenness and severity of the attack, we carried him into the kitchen, where he lay back in a large chair and breathed heavily for some minutes. Finally, with a shamefaced apology for his weakness, he rose once more.

Particular attention should be given to Watson's use of the phrase my poor friend, which implies both ownership, and a sense of acute empathy. Watson also states that he was horrified upon witnessing the display, one of the many instances where Watson has allowed his worry and concern to find its way into one of his reminiscences.

Having recovered slightly, Holmes begins questioning the Cunninghams, obviously finding satisfactory answers, for moments later he requests their signature on a document offering a reward for information pertaining to the murder. This is the exchange that follows:

"In the first place," said Holmes, "I should like you to offer a reward — coming from yourself, for the officials may take a little time before they would agree upon the sum, and these things cannot be done too promptly. I have jotted down the form here, if you would not mind signing it. Fifty pounds was quite enough, I thought."

"I would willingly give five hundred," said the J. P. [elder Mr. Cunningham], taking the slip of paper and the pencil which Holmes handed to him. "This is not quite correct, however," he added, glancing over the document.

"I wrote it rather hurriedly."

"You see you begin, 'Whereas, at about a quarter to one on Tuesday morning an attempt was made,' and so on. It was at a quarter to twelve, as a matter of fact."

I was pained at the mistake, for I knew how keenly Holmes would feel any slip of the kind. It was his specialty to be accurate as to fact, but his recent illness had shaken him, and this one little incident was enough to show me that he was still far from being himself.

Here we are once again treated to Watson's empathy, for Watson clearly states that he was pained at the mistake. We get the sense that Watson is growing more and more concerned as the case proceeds, likely reconsidering his earlier permission to allow Holmes to participate in the investigation. It is quite evident that Watson cares deeply, not only for Holmes, or his health and welfare, but for his reputation as well.

We find out later that the entire incident was orchestrated in order to obtain a sample of Mr. Cunningham's writing. This point however, and Watson's response, we will come back to.

Fully recovered now from his 'attack', Holmes requests a tour of the house. Shortly after entering into Mr. Cunningham's bedroom, Holmes fell back until he and I were the last of the group. This is one of the many occasions where Holmes and Watson are seen to engage in silent communication. Watson does not fully comprehend Holmes' methods, but he knows enough of them, and what's more, trusts Holmes implicitly, so he does not question Holmes' actions, instead conforming immediately to the situation at hand.

As we passed it Holmes, to my unutterable astonishment, leaned over in front of me and deliberately knocked the whole thing over. The glass smashed into a thousand pieces and the fruit rolled about into every corner of the room.

"You've done it now, Watson," said he coolly. "A pretty mess you've made of the carpet."

I stooped in some confusion and began to pick up the fruit, understanding for some reason my companion desired me to take the blame upon myself. The others did the same and set the table on its legs again.

Notice that, again, Watson does not question Holmes' actions. He takes them in stride; quite willing to take the blame, for his trust in Holmes is unwavering.

Holmes uses this incident to slip away, but his leaving does not remain unnoticed for long. Soon the Cunninghams, both father and son, are after him, leaving the others behind in utter confusion.

His words were cut short by a sudden scream of "Help! Help! Murder!" With a thrill I recognized the voice as that of my friend. I rushed madly from the room on to the landing. The cries which had sunk down into a hoarse, inarticulate shouting, came from the room which we had first visited. I dashed in, and on into the dressing-room beyond. The two Cunninghams were bending over the prostrate figure of Sherlock Holmes, the younger clutching his throat with both hands, while the elder seemed to be twisting one of his wrists. In an instant the three of us had torn them away from him, and Holmes staggered to his feet, very pale and evidently greatly exhausted.

Such a suggestive scene! Here is Watson, hearing cries of help from his dear and intimate friend, Sherlock Holmes, rushes madly from the room before dashing in and in an instant he flings himself upon the aggressors in an effort to save Holmes from certain injury.

Truly, Watson would go to any length to keep his friend from harm. This theme reoccurs throughout The Reigate Squires, as Watson's constantly hovering, and constant worry, are all directed towards keeping Holmes from harm.

As mentioned previously, both Holmes' attack in the courtyard, and his mistake which appeared in the advertisement for information, were intentional, orchestrated in an effort to collect evidence. It is not until after the case has been resolved, and the Cunninghams have been arrested, that Holmes makes this known.

Holmes first admits to feigning the attack which rendered him prostrate in front of the Cunningham's house. Watson's reply is quite telling.

"Speaking professionally, it was admirably done," cried I, looking in amazement at this man who was forever confounding me with some new phase of his astuteness.

Such admiration! Holmes, it is quite apparent, perpetually amazes and astonishes Watson, something that invariably affects Watson in such a way as to ensure Watson's continuous presence in Holmes' life. It is telling that Watson would react this way to Holmes, but perhaps what is more telling is that Holmes, desiring to keep Watson interested, goes out of his way to engage in these dramatic displays.

Holmes then goes on to confess his ruse with the wording of the advertisement, to which Watson replies:

"Oh, what an ass I have been!" I exclaimed.

Even Watson knows that he should have known better, and yet, Holmes is so convincing that Watson can't help but place all of his faith in Holmes, regardless of whether that faith rests in Holmes' strengths, or his weaknesses.

"I could see that you were commiserating me over my weakness," said Holmes, laughing. "I was sorry to cause you the sympathetic pain which I know that you felt."

Holmes, it would appear, is well aware of the empathetic connection Watson shares with him. In fact, he seems quite pleased by it. He does apologize, though, for it is obvious here that he too shares an empathetic connection with Watson.

The case, having drawn to its conclusion, ends with what is quite possibly the most telling line of all:

"Watson, I think our quiet rest in the country has been a distinct success, and I shall certainly return much invigorated to Baker Street to-morrow."

I suspect, somewhere buried in the depths of Watson's subconscious, Watson was well aware of what Holmes needed to recover. Though he could not have known of the burglary, or the eventual murder, it is evident that Watson was fully aware that allowing Holmes to participate in the investigation would speed Holmes in his recovery. No wonder, then, that Holmes often refers to Watson as scintillating.

Content contained within belongs to the author. Where outside work is reviewed/quoted, credit has been given. Please do not reproduce without permission. Site credits: Sidney Paget sketch used in the header, Arthur Conan Doyle quote used in the header, brushes compliments of Hybrid Genesis and Miss M.