Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: Shoscombe Old Place


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place in May of 1902. Watson does not give us a year, but he does confirm the month. The story does, however, seem to indicate a later date, and so we have no reason to question Baring-Gould's placement of Shoscombe Old Place. The story was first published in March of 1927.


Mr. John Mason, the head trainer at Shoscombe Old Place, seeks Holmes' advice regarding a problem with his master. It seems Sir Robert Norberton has gone mad; at least, so thinks Mr. Mason, for why else should Sir Robert quarrel with his sister, and then give away her prized spaniel? Why, too, should Sir Robert act himself so strangely, and who is the man he meets at the old crypts? And what does all of this have to do with the fragments of human bone found in the old furnace? Mason suspects the approaching Derby has finally overwhelmed Sir Robert's mind, but Holmes has a slightly different opinion. A quick trip to Shoscombe, the use of an inn's dog, and Holmes is soon able to prove that Sir Robert's sister is not who she seems.

The Subtext:

Sherlock Holmes had been bending for a long time over a low-power microscope. Now he straightened himself up and looked round at me in triumph.

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place begins in Baker Street, Holmes and Watson ensconced in domestic bliss, with Holmes engaged in another of his experiments and Watson admiring Holmes' backside from afar. Here, we cannot help but note Holmes' desire to share his triumph with Watson, for it is clear that Holmes has been aware of Watson's eyes for some time. There is a deep sense of familiarity here, Holmes wishing to share the outcome of his research with Watson, while at the same time, wanting, in some measure, to show off his prowess.

Indeed, Holmes goes so far as to invite Watson to look for himself, Holmes slipping into the role of teacher as he walks Watson through the experiment. This leads Holmes to bring up his most recent case, and we begin, almost immediately, to see Holmes' need to involve Watson in the affair.

"By the way, Watson, you know something of racing?"

"I ought to. I pay for it with about half my wound pension."

"Then I'll make you my 'Handy Guide to the Turf.' What about Sir Robert Norberton? Does the name recall anything?"

While we see in the above passage Holmes' dependency on Watson (and, indeed, proof that Holmes' practice has become a partnership in earnest) here we must draw the reader's attention to the comment that Watson pays for horse racing with half his wound pension. The reader will undoubtedly recall that Watson sold his practice upon Holmes' return, and that Holmes has not yet permitted Watson to begin publishing their cases. If this is the case, then we must assume that Watson's only income is his war wound pension.

Curious, is it not, that Watson can afford to spend half of this on gambling. It becomes quite obvious, then, that Holmes and Watson's funds are no longer as separate as they were when Watson first moved into Baker Street. Indeed, it is highly likely that Holmes has opened a joint account, into which he deposits all of the income from their practice. That Holmes should allow Watson his wound pension for spending money is quite likely the result of a very specific arrangement. While this may not seem of interest to the student of subtext, it is important to note that the sharing of finances is indeed a serious commitment.

Watson proves quite well versed in the sport of racing, but more so, is able to give Holmes ample information on Sir Robert and Shoscombe Old Place. In fact, Holmes is so thrilled by Watson's memory that he is driven to shout:

"Capital, Watson!"

Truly, one can almost picture the gleam of excitement in Holmes' eyes.

This is indeed Watson's case to shine, for by the time Holmes' client, the head trainer at Shoscombe Old Place, Mr. Mason, arrives, Watson has already given Holmes a thorough description of Sir Robert, his relations, and the property in question. Indeed, so thorough is Watson's explanation that Holmes is left only wanting in the event which has caused Mr. Mason to seek his aid.

Fortunately, Mr. Mason is not long in coming, and soon Holmes finds himself agreeing to come down to Shoscombe so that he can look into Sir Robert's curious affairs and determine exactly what it is that has caused his recent erratic behaviour. As Holmes bids Mr. Mason good day, he pauses momentarily to inquire into the location of a good inn, asking, much to Mr. Mason's surprise, if there is good fishing in the area. By way of explanation, Holmes states:

"Watson and I are famous fishermen — are we not, Watson?"

Indeed, we cannot help but find it quite endearing that Holmes and Watson share, not only their personal and professional lives, but also their hobbies.

Holmes and Watson do not waste time in making their way to Shoscombe; indeed, they leave that night, Watson telling us:

Thus it was that on a bright May evening Holmes and I found ourselves alone in a first-class carriage and bound for the little "halt-on-demand" station of Shoscombe.

The above statement is quite curious, in that it poses a rather interesting question. Why is it that Holmes and Watson, when traveling by train, prefer to travel alone in a first class carriage? The answer is, of course, quite simple. Only a first class carriage could offer the privacy Holmes and Watson needed, for it has become quite apparent that sex on a train is one of Holmes' many kinks. One wonders if Holmes found the swaying particularly challenging, and so sought to rise to the occasion.

Their arrival in Shoscombe, and the local inn, sparks little comment, and so, after engaging the landlord in a brief conversation regarding Sir Robert, the state of fishing in the area, and his spaniel in the front room, Holmes and Watson retire to bed. The next morning, Watson tells us:

About eleven o'clock we started for a walk, and he obtained leave to take the black spaniel with us.

We must first note that eleven o'clock occurs shortly after Holmes and Watson's waking. We must then note that Watson had told us it was evening when they set out to Shoscombe. If this is true, then it becomes quite obvious that Holmes and Watson retired early, and slept in late. We can only speculate on the reasons for this, and yet, by this point they should seem quite obvious.

We turn now to examining Holmes' desire to take the black spaniel with us. This is not, of course, the first dog to appear in Canon (indeed, Holmes seems quite taken with dogs in general), but it is the first dog Holmes has used for a purpose other than tracking a criminal. While not of particular interest to the student of subtext, Holmes' seeming love for dogs is quite fascinating, for it allows us to speculate upon a singular question. Why is it that Holmes does not himself own a dog?

Here we suggest that Baker Street was no place for an animal (indeed, this is quite apparent, given that poor Watson had to give up his bull pup), and that Holmes' demanding career made him an unsuitable dog owner. Is it not entirely possible, then, that upon retiring, Holmes, now in a small country villa, and with ample time on his hands, might seek to adopt a dog? While we are certainly lacking proof, the image of Holmes and Watson taking their dog for a nightly walk is simply too delightful to pass up.

Returning to Holmes and Watson's borrowed dog, the black spaniel proves more than just a loyal walking companion, and Holmes is soon able to prove that Sir Robert's sister, the Lady Beatrice, is not who she seems. Indeed, she is not a she at all; the Lady having obviously been replaced by a poor impersonator. It is at this point that Watson tells us:

My companion seemed to have no further plans for the day, and we did actually use our fishing tackle in the millstream with the result that we had a dish of trout for our supper.

It appears as though Holmes has taken now to blending his work with his play. One wonders if he agreed to take the case simply because he wished to holiday with his Watson in the Berkshire country air.

The next morning, however, Holmes is back on the case, this time heading out to investigate the old crypt Mr. Mason first mentioned. It is there that Holmes and Watson are able to put the final pieces of the puzzle together; Holmes and Watson discovering the body of Sir Robert's sister, and the disappearance of several archaic bones to account for the bone fragments found in the furnace.

Before they can move forward, however, Holmes and Watson are accosted by Sir Roberts, who has come to the crypt to pay his respects to his sister. Sir Roberts blanches upon hearing Holmes' name, and realizing that a full explanation will be to his advantage, he invites Holmes and Watson into the house.

After hearing Sir Robert's story, Holmes admits that Sir Robert has committed no real crime, but insists that he must turn the matter over to the police. It is with Holmes' closing remarks that he turns to Watson to state:

"It is nearly midnight, Watson, and I think we may make our way back to our humble abode."

While we would not expect Holmes to return to Baker Street at such a late hour (if, indeed, there was even a scheduled train), we can well imagine Holmes' eagerness to return to their room at the inn. Having solved yet another case, we cannot doubt that Holmes should wish a moment alone with Watson, so that they might celebrate.

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